So it was Final Fantasy IX's 15th birthday this week, so I thought I'd celebrate by writing a post.
So it's a little bit late, but I wanted to write a bit about why it's one my favourite (if not my ABSOLUTE favourite) game of all time. It's not something I've ever really been good at, explaining why I love the things I do, but I'm going to attempt it none the less. It's the least I can do.
Rose Tinted Glasses
The elephant in the room whenever talking about older media is nostalgia. I cannot deny the weight of nostalgia this game holds for me. It was the first Final Fantasy game I owned (played a little of VII) and the first game I played that told such a grand story. Sure I missed most of the themes and didn't even play it to the end, but it paved the way for my love of story driven games from that point on. I then went on to play Final Fantasy X which for a long time became my addiction, one that I've never truly recovered from, as is apparent by my current FFX run.
The first thing that becomes apparent with an old game like this is the graphics. The game is old and compared to modern games it looks like an ancient relic. The games industry moves at an alarmingly fast rate and 15 years of graphical improvements are hard to ignore. That being said it's hard to deny
how beautiful the art style is in FFIX. Everything from the world they live in to the characters that inhabit it is so wondrous to behold, one minute you can be in the huge city of Lindblum where they just released dangerous animals into the streets as part of the Festival of the Hunt and then the next minute you can be crossing the desert to visit the tree town of Cleyra, guarded from outside attacks by the sandstorm willed into existence through dance... and magic. Each area you enter is full of life and has incredible detail, for those who haven't yet stumbled across them you should check out the Lost Art of FFIX. They are just absolutely stunning and would look jaw droppingly amazing in a HD remake (hint hint, Square).
It's a clear change from the previous entries to the series like FFVII and FFVIII which existed within gritty, dark, mechanical worlds as it instead takes on a more light hearted, colourful theme of exaggerated environments and even more exaggerated characters. I think this is very important to the success of FFIX as it contrasts the story so much. In many games the world you inhabit looks bleak and depressing, even before any world destroying event would have happened, it's a standard for telling dark stories of war and fighting, the world has to reflect that. But for FFIX it's different, they tackle dark themes, ranging from personal loss and problems to war and ultimately the destruction of the world and yet, during all of this the world and the people within it remain fairly upbeat and cheerful which only serves to compound the moments where things become too much. I believe in a dark and moody world the game would have felt stale as it jumps from one bad event to another, all blending into one unending 'doesn't life suck' rather than giving you something to fight for, people to fight for.
Throughout the story they tackle the themes of death, war, genocide, slavery and betrayal and it questions life, it's origins and it's purpose. It approaches such massive subjects and yet does so while still being a game which I could sit here and call cartoonish and upbeat. That is the true majesty of what they achieved.
Final Fantasy games have always been about the story. And stories to me personally are all about character development. I love more than anything to see a character learn and evolve in a believable manner in the face of adversity. Is that character unbearable, annoying, down right despicable? I can still love that character if they have a well developed character arc, not some random out of character redeeming moment just before their untimely demise, but an honest to goodness moment where they learn from everything they've been through and ultimately go against who they used to be in favour of who they want to be. THAT makes a character. THAT is much better than some one dimensional good guy who would have done that from the beginning and never question his views. People are constantly changing, constantly questioning themselves and the world around them. Learning.
The characters in FFIX are so vibrant and interesting. They begin as fairly obvious clichés but they all have their own stories and their own personal arcs, their moments of realisation at what they've been doing. I want to look at a few of the characters and their narratives individually as I believe this is where the game truly shines.
Zidane, the hero of the story. Whilst not my favourite character I certainly believe this arc is very interesting. Comparing him to the protagonist from FFX, Tidus, you see some stark changes. Tidus starts out as an insufferable oaf, you have to give him some leeway as he is lost in an unknown world, and yet still you find his inability to grasp the situation as well as his one track mind that only thinks about himself gets very annoying. This slowly changes throughout the game until eventually he makes the ultimate sacrifice, losing everything for the people he loved. It's a great character arc, no doubt. Zidane seems to do the complete opposite though.
Zidane starts out as the rougish, carefree ladies man. He travels around the world, taking what he wants, enjoying himself along the way. Throughout the story he constantly tries to cheer people up, help them to lift themselves out of the depression brought on by the things they have to confront, getting them to cut loose and have some fun. The perfect travelling partner. But as the story progresses he finds it harder and harder until he finally has to face his creator, confront the reality of his life, who he is. I see this very much as a metaphor for dealing with depression, he always put on a brave face and tried to take on the weight of the world before it all finally became too much. This even manifests itself at the end of the game, where Zidane tries to face it on his own, but he finds it too much to handle, luckily his friends have his back, and with their help he can face anything. At first he doesn't accept this help, he closes himself off, but they wont accept that, they will always have his back, just like he had theirs. It's powerful stuff. The point being, Zidane has flaws, he's human, and that humanity is what makes him great, and ultimately it's what saves him in the story too. It elevates him in his own eyes from just another clone of an alien race to something more human, like the rest of the characters. It gives him a reason to carry on. A reason to live.
Vivi has a very similar story in many ways, and yet it's entirely different. The character is quite unlike Zidane, being quiet and shy, lacking confidence. He struggles to understand the world and it scares him, luckily Zidane is there to cheer him up through the toughest of times. His story is all about finding himself, thrust out into the big scary world, not being able to comprehend who he is or where he fits into it. A story that resonates with everyone at some point in their lives. He has to deal with a similar situation to Zidane, finding out he is not human, instead he was built with the sole purpose of killing, he is a weapon. This goes against the kind and loving character that Vivi is and it repulses him. He struggles to fight against the expectations, having to deal with what can only really be referred to as racism from the people who are scared of what the controlled black mages have done. He has to deal with abuse and attacks from people when he has done nothing wrong and he struggles to comprehend why people are doing this, it's upsetting and there is no end to it.
Eventually he finds some of the other black mages who have managed to free themselves and starts to get some answers, something Vivi has strived for the entire game. But it doesn't make things any easier, far from it, he finds that black mages have a very short life span, and that his time is coming up far too soon. Now on top of all this he is forced to confront death. This is akin to being told by a doctor you dont have long to live as you have a life threatening illness, something world destroying and incredibly difficult to cope with, incredibly difficult to wrap your head around. Yet something else Vivi has to try and comprehend in this unrelenting world. You cant help but cheer him along on his journey, an entirely likeable character that despite all of his ordeals remains steadfast and loyal to his friends. He weathers the storm, continuing to be wide eyed with wonder at everything around him and never faltering from his path.
Princess Garnet Til Alexandros' story, or Dagger as she is known throughout much of the game, is a story of rebellion, breaking out from underneath the protective wings of her mother and exploring the world. Of course, this is compounded due to her position of being a princess, a princess with the ability to summon the ancient Eidolons powerful enough to destroy the world. What starts out as a young girl wanting some freedom evolves naturally into war as a crazed mother tries to retrieve her daughter.
Garnet's story is more obvious in many ways, throughout the story she has to try to blend in with the lower classes, learning how to talk and act more naturally so as to hide her identity. Understanding the world beyond her little world and understanding the hardships of others. To contrast this though she also learns to better handle responsibility, as she takes her position as the Queen of Alexandria. The teenager's route to adulthood on a grand scale.
Steiner, although he has much less of a narrative than the previously mentioned characters, is an absolute favourite of mine. He starts out as a bumbling fool, a comic relief character, after a while he becomes annoying, stubborn in the face of obvious facts but in the end he becomes one of the most endearing and loving characters. He has to throw away everything he believes in, everything he has worked for his entire life as he realises it has always been pointless. He has served the Queen and the Princess without question, he follows the rules to a fault and fails to see bad in the ones he serves. But eventually even he has to realise what the Queen is doing, the horror she has unleashed, he has to admit that Zidane was right. And it pains him so. In many ways I see this as a shedding of one's religion or of societal norms, where you question the world around you and come to a conclusion you never wanted to believe but is hard to refute. He has to make the choice to keep on following the easy path he had laid out for himself, ignorant to what is actually happening or take the difficult route and change and go against everything he dedicated himself towards his entire life.
Friends Til The End
As for the other party members, Eiko has to confront leaving her home and her family as well as being confronted by her first young love, to someone who isn't interested in return. Freya has to deal with loss, a loved one who cannot remember her, despite how much she might love him still after all these years. Amarant has to deal with humility, accepting defeat, admitting he is not the best and that he has flaws. Qunia... well, I'm not really sure what he/she is up to. I guess ultimately he/she comes to learn that there is more to life than food, that friendship is important and a one track mind will lead you nowhere.
The Mortality of Gods
The last honourable mention has to go to Kuja, an amazingly fabulous antagonist who manipulates those around him to gain more power. He gave birth to the black mages, including Vivi, he controlled Queen Brahne and ultimately destroyed the world of Terra. He strives to be the most powerful being in existence and yet is told by his creator that Zidane is a superior clone, able to enter trance, something it is believed Kuja cannot do. Despite his near invincible status he is forever tormented by Zidane and ultimately wants to eliminate him.
Kuja's story is one of mortality, no matter how strong he became, what power he wielded, he would never be immortal, he could not live forever, eventually he would be dethroned and Zidane was created to do just that. Even the mighty must fall eventually.
So in one story we deal with depression, racism, love, rejection, humility, loss, war, genocide, impending doom, the loss of faith, the transformation into adulthood, responsibility,illness, mortality and ultimately death. It likely contains many more themes that I've not picked up on or not gone over here, many of these I never thought too deeply about until writing this.
One thing that I think grants a large amount of power and personality to the story of FFIX is that fact that it is a text based game, there are no voices. There's no doubt that voice acting makes games much more accessible and in many ways makes it easier to tell a story as the emotions are conveyed exactly how the writer intended them to. But I argue that text based games have their own positive points too. With text the character acts and behaves how the reader expects them too, not the writer, this also allows the reader to project either their own personality or the personality they want them to have on to the character. Different people can read the same thing very differently. For me, it is a massive shame that all story games must now be these grandly acted out pieces with showy, hour long CGI movies. Cinematic games like Final Fantasy XIII have their place, no doubt, I love some epic action, but do all games need to be like that these days? Movies are awesome, but they never replaced books.
In the end everyone takes different things away from a game. For me Final Fantasy IX helped me to understand a lot of very difficult and very heavy topics in an abstract way, it allowed me to explore these darker areas of life in a safe and interesting environment. Videogames are an amazing media for exploring different emotions, different situations and different actions that might not be available to someone in the real world and the things that it can teach you can be invaluable. Sure, games are not some wonder cure or the solution to everything, but they shouldn't be overlooked as incredibly valuable sources of experiences. They can and do change lives.