The First Ever Digital Opera that Changed Videogame Music Forever: Final Fantasy VI’s “The Dream Oath”

(by Gene Yraola)

Now that a legendary staple amongst 16-bit enthusiasts will once again be brought to the mainstream attention with the release of the SNES Mini Classic today, its time to look at one of the game’s most revolutionary aspects. Long before videogames had big time movie composers creating their scores, a pixelated, 16-bit opera scene changed the way how music, and more importantly emotion in games were looked at. More than 20 years later, that scene still resonates amongst the hearts of gamers, developers, and writers as the defining moment of “emotion in videogames.”

While many will consider its sequel, Final Fantasy VII as being the first significant and most memorable of all gaming scores (and turning composer Nobuo Uematsu into a household name in Japan and amongst gamers worldwide), it was its predecessor Final Fantasy VI (or Final Fantasy III as it was known in North America upon its original release) that changed the tide for how we “feel” in videogames – all due to a dramatic MIDI-composed opera scene.

Keep in mind this was the 90s. Videogames for better or worse, were still “toys” back then, and while the 16-bit Super Nintendo / Sega Genesis era provided new avenues in game design innovation, story lines were no more complex than straightforward damsel in distress scenarios. Characters designed as flat 2-D sprites, looked no more adult than flame-throwing plumbers or speedy hedgehogs. Videogame music, while being able to be catchy through the creativity of their composers, were still no more intricate than the simple techno sounds of a bleeps and bloops.  All told, videogames was child’s  play.

Then came Final Fantasy VI.

Final Fantasy VI contained perhaps the deepest script of the time, a landmark in story telling in videogames, with themes of suicide and religion. With such an riveting storyline came the need for a score that not only would be memorable…but emotional beyond the technical limits of the time. And while 1997’s Final Fantasy VII would make Nobuo Uematsu the crown jewel of all game music composers, it would be his work on 1994’s Final Fantasy VI that set a revolution on how we perceive the music of videogames. For the first time, complex emotion in a videogame felt genuine, it felt real.

Opera was an integral part of the game and to this day twenty years later, Final Fantasy VI still remains the best use of it in the medium. To think the drama and sounds of an opera, yes OPERA, could be mimicked, let alone integrated so well into a 16-bit game, requires not only a sense of artistic craziness, but an imagination beyond limits.  Thankfully Uematsu saw beyond the scope and silliness of what a game score could be.

One scene however stood out from the game above all others, and provides the best example of how music can truly make a game. Ask any hardcore gamer that lived through the 90s, and they’ll tell you that Final Fantasy VI’s “The Dream Oath” opera scene remains one of their most vivid memories in gaming. Envision yourself in their shoes, probably no older than a teenager at the time, and you’ll understand how a game could cause tears to flow. An opera within a game utilizing a mix of a MIDI-converted orchestral score (complimented by a 16-bit animated orchestra) with unintelligible synthesized “voices” that harmonizes with a melody, the heart of “The Dream Oath” shows more grandeur than even the most lavish of movie scores today. (Fans of Final Fantasy VII might even notice subtle hints of its main theme found in the “The Dream Oath”).

Reading the “libretto” of “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” the main aria of the “The Dream Oath,” there is surprisingly a deep poetic beauty. Its no wonder that’s its even performed today in real life by notable opera singers and orchestras around the world.  Hearing it strikes not only nostalgia of a period in gaming when deep gameplay trumped graphics, but when feeling for a character felt more important than any score that could be obtained.  Dramatic and more emotional than most modern day big budget scores, the 16-bit aria stands the test of time and remain one of the most revered music samples in all of the digital age.

In the end, cultural enthusiasts will recognize Final Fantasy VI‘s “The Dream Oath” as the first ever true digital opera. Gamers and developers will remember Final Fantasy VI‘s “The Dream Oath” as the day videogame music matured. For this writer, it will be remembered as the moment videogames found a heart that will never be forgotten.

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