Warning! The following contains HUGE spoilers for Final Fantasy IX
Storytelling in the video game medium can be challenging, but it comes with some unique benefits. You, the player, will typically empathize with the playable character since we see the world from their perspective. Because of this, you will often see video game stories feature plot-twists involving the identity, mental state or even physiology of our playable character. Final Fantasy X used Tidus’ naive perspective to shock us with a revelation that every other character already knew about. In Final Fantasy VII we got a gameplay sequence told by an unreliable narrator. This type of plot-twist is also fairly common in Western RPGs, such as Knights of the Old Republic or Bioshock.
However, I would argue that Final Fantasy IX makes the best use of this effect. Whilst it may not be my absolute favorite (that would be FFVI), there is no doubt that it wins the award for “most underrated Final Fantasy”; it’s critically acclaimed yet its fanbase is comparatively small. As many of you may know, Final Fantasy IX alludes to every single Final Fantasy game ever. Not only that, but Hironobu Sakaguchi himself considers Final Fantasy IX to be the “closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be.” After having finally played it in 2015, I can definitely see why.
A bunch of misfits seeking to understand who they are
Since Final Fantasy IX is a reflection of the series as a whole, the characters are each deconstructions or subversions of the common Final Fantasy archetypes1. For example, Yuffie, Selphie, Vanille, Rikku and XV’s Prompto (and Iris) all come from the same mold: A foreign, typically younger character who’s cheerful attitude contrasts with the oppression and/or genocide of his/her people. For Final Fantasy IX this character is Eiko: she comes from Madain Sari, she’s the last of her kind (until we discover Garnet’s true identity) but compared to someone like Rikku she exhibits a much wider range of emotions such as loneliness, love and jealousy.
Steiner is probably the most interesting example; his character is almost a satire of ‘generic goody-two-shoes’ Final Fantasy protagonist. He tries to do what he thinks is ‘right’ (i.e. rescue princess from thief who kidnapped her) but he’s such a stubborn stick-in-the-mud that he refuses to listen even when Garnet is trying to tell him not to ‘rescue’ her! Naturally, over the course of the game, he would become more open-minded and willing to think for himself and forge his own path rather than just do what he’s told.
While the cast of FFIX don’t actually have a lot in common, they do share a common trait: Each of them experiences a loss (or change) of identity. Freya travels the world seeking her lost love only to discover that he doesn’t remember her. Garnet escapes her life as a princess and even changes her name to Dagger in order to create her own identity. Amarant is a loner who becomes perplexed by Zidane’s desire to help people regardless of circumstances.
Over the course of the story, each character forges a new identity, but there are two in particular who stand out from the rest. Both of these characters end up bonding over the course of the story without realize just how much they have in common. And both are used to demonstrate the game’s central theme: What does it mean to be alive?2
How Vivi became one of the most beloved Final Fantasy characters
Vivi is an obvious call back to the original ‘black mage’ of Final Fantasy, but his personality and demeanor is akin to the ‘child’ character (see also: Hope, Red XIII and Gau). Vivi came aboard the airship accidentally, and spends the first few hours of the game tripping over himself and hanging out with Steiner who respects him as a powerful Black Mage. Then, we arrive at the village of Dali and this is where Final Fantasy IX becomes the game that deserves its acclaim.
This scene in question is a phenomenal example of “show, not tell” in a video game. All we see is an assembly line of black mages, an unnerving melody and Vivi who’s just standing there shaking, unable to process the discovery that he is an artificial being. From here, things only get more difficult for Vivi. He tries to communicate with the other black mages to find out more about himself, but instead just ends up watching in horror as the Black Waltz III’s Thundara causes all of the black mages to fall off the airship in one of the game’s most beautiful scenes.
Later, on a faraway continent, Vivi discovers a village of Black mages who, like him, have become self-aware and have created a community. Here, Vivi learns yet another horrible truth: He doesn’t have much longer to live. After about a year or two, Black Mages just ‘fall down’ and are buried underground in a cemetery. Vivi, who’s finally discovered his identity, is now forced to accept that in the near future, without any warning, he will die.. Despite his melancholic story, Vivi is able to remain positive with the help of his friends who stay by his side and comfort him during these harsh events, and inspire him to live the remaining few months of his life to the fullest. Zidane, especially, serves as a role model and it’s very fitting that he does.
Vivi, it turns out that you’re not alone
As far as main characters go, Zidane is drastically different from the more aloof Cloud or Squall. He doesn’t keep to himself and instead just acts according to how he feels. Overall, he feels most similar to Locke, although he doesn’t try to pretend he’s not a thief! His entire personality is best defined by his most famous quote “You don’t need a reason to help people” and his constant hitting on Garnet. But ultimately, there is a reason he focuses so much on others: He knows nothing about himself. The only clue to his origin is a flash of blue light. He’s so quick to accept other people regardless of who they are or where they come from because he has no idea who he is or where he comes from.
And then, as our party makes our way to Terra, a planet that exists inside of Gaia, we are greeted with a flash of blue light and a bunch of humanoid creatures that all have tails like Zidane. This is the climax of the story and by far the most shocking revelation: Zidane is a genome. We’ve been playing as an artificial being this whole time. For the first time in his life, Zidane doesn’t know who he is anymore. Not only is he an artificial being, he was designed with a specific purpose: To spread the seeds of death and destruction on Gaia. This goes completely against who Zidane considers himself to be and after getting brainwashed by Garland, he has his own identity crisis.
It’s a brilliant twist. We’ve been watching Vivi discover and come to terms with his artificial existence. Now, suddenly, the character we’ve been controlling this whole time is revealed to be just the same. Fortunately all his friends, and particularly Garnet, remind him that as much as he tries to be an independent free spirit, he depends on his friends just as much as they depend on him. Realizing this, Zidane is able to come to terms with his own artificiality and now stands against his own creator.
But Zidane has a foil. In a brilliant reference to Final Fantasy IV, Kuja is also revealed to be a genome much like Zidane. Suddenly, Kuja’s atrocities (a hearty mix of Kefka and Sephiroth) makes a lot more sense, he was literally created to eradicate life on Gaia. Even his extreme cruelty towards Vivi and the black mages make sense. He despises them, and considers them nothing but tools because that’s all he is to Garland.
Here, Kuja experiences the same thing that Vivi experienced back in Black Mage village. Unfortunately, while Vivi had friends to help him accept his impending death, Kuja has and thus he simply cannot accept his own mortality. Instead, he lashes out violently destroying all of Terra out of jealousy. And yet after his final defeat, in spite of all the suffering Kuja brought onto both words, Zidane extends a hand of friendship. Zidane was also designed as an angel of destruction but, as a result of Kuja banishing him to Gaia, he made friends and discovered a new identity for himself. After his journey, Zidane understands that all Kuja really needed was a friend.
Final Fantasy IX is far more than just a bunch of nostalgic references; it’s a story about finding one’s identity even if that means going against your prescribed societal ‘role’. It’s a story standing resolute, even when your kingdom falls right before your very eyes. But most of all, it’s the story about what it means to be alive.
1 This analysis of FF archetypes is heavily borrowed from Oracle Turret’s blog.
2 Hiroyuki Ito is the director of both Final Fantasy VI and IX. It’s no coincidence both of these games feature life and death as motifs. VI asks “what makes life worth living?” while IX asks “what does it mean to be alive?”