High Scores: Terra’s Theme

A vocal contingent among the Final Fantasy VI fandom argues that Terra is not the game’s main character—Terra, who appears on the game’s title art; Terra, who is the first character the player names, as they do Cloud in FFVII, Squall in FFVIII, Zidane in FFIX, and Tidus in FFX, all of whom are male and unequivocally recognized as their games’ protagonists; Terra, whose body transforms and whose name means Earth, in a game about the transformation of the Earth; Terra, whose identity is split in two, in a game whose story is split in two; Terra, whose theme is the game’s overworld theme in its first half and a leitmotif during scenes in which Terra may not or cannot be present.

That “Terra’s Theme” disappears from the game in the World of Ruin (the game’s second half) does not diminish the importance of her character. In fact, by examining how “Terra’s Theme” and its leitmotifs dominate the World of Balance (the game’s first half) but localize in the WoR, we can see how Terra’s story is, in fact, the story of FFVI. To cast Terra as less than the protagonist is to miss the game’s central themes, narratively and musically.

It’s easy to confuse “Terra’s Theme” with other FFVI songs because of how often its melody is used as a leitmotif. It first occurs the game’s overture, “Omen” (at 2:31), as Terra, Vicks, and Wedge march over a snow-covered field in Magitek Armor and the opening credits roll. Nobuo Uematsu has been called the John Williams of video games, and this scene is very much like the opening of Star Wars, whose theme becomes a leitmotif for its main character, Luke Skywalker. After “Omen,” we are reintroduced to the melody in a song called “Awakening” (at 0:25), which for a long time I thought was “Terra’s Theme.” “Awakening” plays during Terra’s most personal moments: her regaining her memory, her decision to join the Returners, her realization of her parentage. It is also the only song with the Terra leitmotif that we hear in the WoR, when the party comes across Terra as the den mother of an underground orphanage. While “Awakening” is used to mark Terra’s major plot points in much the same way “Celes’s Theme” and “Locke’s Theme” do for their respective characters, “Awakening” is not Terra’s theme. “Terra’s Theme” is what we hear as we walk through the overworld in the WoB—when our feet are literally on the earth, even if Terra’s not in the party. This is not by accident.

The soundtrack contains multiple other examples of the “Terra’s Theme” leitmotif in songs used only in the WoB. One such song, “Protect the Espers!” (leitmotif at 0:32), plays during pivotal scenes in the game’s first half, including the escape from the Magitek Research Facility, where Terra cannot be in the party. Another WoB-only song, “Metamorphosis” incorporates the Terra leitmotif fittingly (at 0:24): the song plays as the WoB begins to transform into the WoR, much as Terra herself transforms from human to Esper earlier in the game. These leitmotifs train the player to understand the broader conflict of the game as Terra’s conflict.

The disappearance of “Terra’s Theme,” “Protect the Espers!” and “Metamorphosis” from the WoR mirrors the disappearance of Terra from the party. Finding Terra in Mobliz and recruiting her back into the party comprise a two-part side-quest, the only part of the WoR where we hear “Awakening.” If we want to play as Terra again, we’ve got to go to Mobliz twice. The game goads the player into leaving its heretofore main character to mind her own business.

It’s for this reason, among others, that some fans diminish Terra’s role. Many argue that FFVI doesn’t have a main character; the large cast and the optional nature of most party members in the WoR support this argument. Others argue that Celes or Locke is the main character. Such arguments miss the point of Terra’s optional role in the WoR. Instead of using her decision to stay in the orphanage and protect the child survivors of the apocalypse as evidence of her character’s secondary signifance, we should take it as evidence of the primary importance of her protection of new life. Of course, we as players are predisposed to see the battling, recruitment, and exploration we control as the “real” story. And yes, Terra can participate in this “real” story if we want her to; she is indeed among the most powerful endgame party members. However, by establishing a clear protagonist in the game’s first half and making her optional in its second, Squaresoft challenges the player to see Terra’s care of the Mobliz orphans as equally important as the fight against Kefka in restoring balance to the world.

Even if we don’t recruit Terra in the WoR, the game forces her into the story before we fight the final boss and into the party after we beat the game. Before the battle with Kefka starts, the game cuts to Terra in the underground orphanage. Sensing the endangerment of her long-lost friends, Terra morphs into Esper form and flies from Mobliz to Kefka’s Tower—only to arrive after the battle is finished. Again, if battle is our primary focus, Terra’s non-participation in the final fight would seem to diminish her heroine status. But in the denouement, Terra rejoins the party regardless, helping them out of Kefka’s collapsing “monument to nonexistence.” Here, too, her role as a protector is highlighted over her role as a warrior.

During this denouement, we hear a 21-minute finale called “Balance Is Restored,” which reprises all the playable characters’ musical themes, including those you haven’t found and/or recruited back into the party. In these cases, the player is shown where in the WoR to find the characters during their next playthrough. However, Terra is given a narrative sequence as if she had been recruited. Her theme reprises in “Balance is Restored” at 7:42. But after all fourteen of the characters’ themes are reprised, “Terra’s Theme” is re-reprised at 16:30, right before we’re shown one of the orphan teenagers, Katarin, giving birth. Terra waves from the airship and laughs with joy at the community she’s fostered, now self-sufficient and creating new life. She walks to the bow of the airship and removes her headband, a callback to the removal of her slave crown at the beginning of the game. Her green hair blows in the wind. With or without fighting, she has restored balance to the world. The game ends, as it began, with Terra, but a Terra who is under no one’s control.

It’s natural for us as players to privilege gameplay—what we can control—in our understanding of a game’s narrative and its characters. When we play RPGs, and especially when we replay them, we tend to get frustrated by the elements outside gameplay, button-mashing through dialogue boxes and skipping cutscenes if we can. I believe the minimizing of Terra’s heroism among the fandom is a natural consequence of this myopia, this focus on what we can control. And yet keeping Terra in or out of the party is, ultimately, our choice. Paradoxically, some players might not realize how central Terra is to the story because they voluntarily recruit her in the WoR and thus don’t get to see the cutscene that brings her back in regardless. Next time you play FFVI, try not recruiting Terra, if you always have. Let her stay underground until she rises up to help you on her own.