This is the best storyline that the Pokémon series has done (Disclaimer: I still haven’t played Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky). Witness one of the most successful video game franchise tell the story of Lillie, an shy girl who carries a Pokémon called Nebby in a duffle bag. If that wasn’t enough, Pokémon borrows from real-world biology once again and provides regional variants of Pokémon we’ve become familiar with.
Quick! What do The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Chrono Trigger, Life is Strange, Undertale, Prince of Persia, Braid, Jak 2: Renegade, Quantum Break Final Fantasy I, Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 all have in common?
…ok, I guess the title of this post is a bit of a giveaway: Each of these games involve time travel either in their gameplay, storyline or both! Sometimes it’s our character traveling through different eras, sometimes we have the ability to reset the timeline. Either way, time-travel shows up surprisingly often in video games and I have a few theories as to why that is.
But first, we need to talk about Final Fantasy I. I’m sure everyone by now is familiar with the story of the original Final Fantasy: how it was intended to be Square’s swan song, how it was designed with no sequel in mind (thus paving the way for each Final Fantasy having a unique world/cast) and how it would define not just the series but the JRPG genre as a whole1. Whilst the gameplay of Final Fantasy was similar (albeit more complex) than other games at the time, the sheer size and scope of it’s storyline was unprecedented. This is one of the first video games that actually cared about narrative and, what a surprise, it also happens to involve time-travel!
At first, Final Fantasy’s story seems painfully generic: You play as four warriors of light who must rescue the princess from the evil knight. The most hackneyed storyline in gaming. But wait, that’s just the introduction!. By the end, you’re left with a perplexing tale about a knight who created a timeloop and attained pseudo-immortality. Many common Final Fantasy tropes, such as the ‘technologically advanced society who was destroyed X number of years ago’, started right here. But what stands out the most is that Final Fantasy I is a story where the villain is the time-traveler rather than the hero. Whilst the Warriors of Light do get to time-travel at the very end of the game, for the most part their job is to clean up the mess of the actual time-traveling antagonist.
Time Travel allows games to explore prior events and show characters change over time
Flashback sequences are a staple of literature for a reason: They allow us to take a look at prior events and see how the characters were shaped the way they are. While video games certainly can make use of flashback sequences in a cutscene, these lack the interactive component that make video game stories so unique. Instead, what a lot of video games will do is have a character tell a story of events that transpired before and allow you, the player, to experience this as a ‘playable flashback’. For example, as Cloud tells the rest of the party the dark history of Nibelheim, you get to play through his experience alongside Sephiroth. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Captain Price recounts his experiences as a sniper on an assassination mission in ‘All Gillied Up’, in what is easily the game’s best level (at least in terms of narrative).
While this approach of creating interactive flashback sequences is one I highly encourage, there’s another way to achieve the same effect: Give the player-character(s) the ability to time-travel. Even though Final Fantasy I barely even has characters, the biggest plot-twist in Final Fantasy shows one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon. As the Warriors of Light, we travel 2000 years into the past to confront Chaos, the evil mastermind responsible for sending fiends into the future. Shockingly, Chaos is revealed to be Garland, the knight who planned to Knock Us Down way back at the beginning of the game. With merely two dialog sequences and a bit of time traveling, Sakaguchi created a villain who actually developed over the course of the story, at a time when most video games stories consisted of “Go kill robo-Hitler”.
What’s more, this time-traveling does a good job of justifying the “prophecy” that foretold the Warriors of Light’s arrival. “You play as four warriors of light who were foretold by some prophecy to save the world” sounds contrived… until you meet the prophecy-teller himself and he reveals the existence of the timeloop. Suddenly, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched; the sage simply has awareness of the timeloop.
Time travel allows video games to depict change in the environment
Although it would be years before we coined the term “environmental storytelling”, plenty of video games in the 90s discovered the value of using setting to tell a story. Two, in particular, are still considered among the best video games ever conceived: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Chrono Trigger.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time features a 7 year timeskip where our character turns from child to adult and Ganondorf has wrecked the entire world, drastically altering the landscape. Bustling villages with cheery music are replaced with ransacked houses and howling wind. While some video game villains long for the day they rule the world, here we witness the impact of Ganondorf’s rule firsthand through the eyes of our time-traveling protagonist. Whilst Ocarina of Time’s plot is extremely basic, the way the storyline is experienced by the player is what makes it so renowned.
Of course, you would be hard pressed to find a better example of “time travel in a video game” than Chrono Trigger. This cousin of the Final Fantasy series uses time travel as a central game mechanic and major plot device, effectively allowing us to experience the world in five separate epochs from prehistory to post-apocalypse. Each ‘era’ is a unique environment with a unique conflict but each influence the other and by the end of the game, we have learned the entire history of the world by personally experiencing it ourselves.
Whist it was nowhere near as sophisticated, this technique is present in Final Fantasy I. When we begin our adventure, most of the story’s main events have already happened: Garland has already seized the princess, Tiamat has already destroyed the Lufenians and the Elven Prince has already been sleeping for years. Guided by a prophecy, we set out on a series of fetch quests taking us to a variety of environments where we can witness the aftermath and clean up the mess. It isn’t until much later on that we learn that these fiends were sent from the past by Chaos.
When the plot twist is finally revealed, our warriors of light head back 2000 years in time to the origin point and here we get to see the Chaos Shrine before it was decayed and became the first dungeon we explored, thus bookending the story.
It’s a perfect justification for player agency
Playable video game characters can be extremely difficult to justify in a storyline. They are typically drastically more powerful, drastically more tough and anytime they die they can just open up a save file and go back in time to try again. This puts a constant strain on our suspension of disbelief, especially if we’re playing as someone who’s not a god or superhero2.
Saving the game and resetting the game is especially difficult to justify in the narrative unless you decide that your character has the ability to control time. One of the best examples of this in a modern video game would be Undertale. In the story of Undertale, the creature with the highest level of Determination has the power to ‘save’ and ‘reset’ the timeline. When you begin the game, your player-character gains control of this power. Thus, the ability to save your progress is part of the storyline. This turns the simple act of “I’m going to reset the game to try out the bad ending” into an intense moral dilemma where one of the key characters literally begs you not to reset (warning: this link contains undertale spoilers).
Now, Final Fantasy I is a very old video game and I can’t say for sure that this was the developer’s intention, but I do have a theory that could justify our ability to reset the game after the game over screen: Every time the Warriors of Light are defeated, they are dead in that specific timeline. Each new attempt at beating the game represents a separate iteration through the timeloop.
Remember, Garland is the ‘main’ time-traveler in this story. If we look at the events from Garland’s perspective, anything that the warriors of light accomplish after defeating him (aside from defeating Chaos) doesn’t actually matter anymore because Garland has already gone back 2000 years, become Chaos and initiated a new timeline. Therefore, for example, on one of the timeloops’ iterations, the warriors died to the Lich. In another, they all died in the unforgiving ice cavern. In each iteration through the timeloop, the warriors of light die and the world is destroyed. However, Garland has already initiated the next timeloop thus rendering the current one (that the Warriors of Light are currently in) irrelevant. The timeline we play in doesn’t actually matter until the Warriors of Light successfully travel back 2000 years and defeat Chaos, thus breaking the timeloop once and for all.
Could it be that each attempted playthrough of Final Fantasy represents separate iteration of the timeloop? I guess you’d have to ask Sakaguchi himself if that’s what he was going for. Of course, this theory is contradicted if you lose the game before even getting to Garland in the first place and it only explains our ability to reset a new game, not reload a save file.
In the thirty years since it’s release, we’ve now seen tons of video games use time-travel to enhance their world, show character development and even go so far as to provide narrative justification for the player’s own behavior. Overall, I find it very fitting that Final Fantasy, one of the very first games that gave a damn about storytelling, featured a plot involving a time-traveling knight and was experienced from the perspective of 4 prophetic warriors would would eventually defeat him.
1: Ever wonder why JRPGs became known for text-heavy video games featuring long epic storylines with tons of dialog? (and why that distinction has disappeared in modern video games?) It’s because the Japanese language is character based. Writing with Japanese characters takes up far less space (per word) than writing using the arabic alphabet. This means you can fit way more text on a game cartridge and made a world of difference during the 80s and 90s. It also made the act of translating Japanese video an absolute nightmare.
2: Okami is a great example of a video game where you play as a goddess, thereby justifying your extraordinary powerful abilities.
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?”
Warning, the following contains HUGE plot spoilers for Final Fantasy X
Two worlds, both alike in misery,
In fair Spira, where we lay our scene,
From Yevon’s grudge born the beast of the sea,
Civil blood is spilled where Sin goes free.
From forth the fatal loins of this divine foe
A pair of star-cross’d lovers throw their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury Yu Yevon’s strife.
Whilst romantic video games are few and far between, the 10th installment of the Final Fantasy series stands out in my mind as one of the finest. Final Fantasy X, released in 2001 on the Playstation 2, is the story of a young lady and her journey to bring peace to a world in suffering, told from the perspective of the young man she falls in love with.
The two heroes that fall in love
So on one hand we have Tidus. He’s our playable character (you will notice how I did not say main character). He gets a lot of flak but I actually like him because I strongly identified with an overly-emotional rebellious teenager. He’s impulsive, he follows his feelings and will not accept an outcome unless he feels it makes sense. At times this makes him courageous (his battle command “Cheer” stacks with itself 5 times). When told not to enter Besaid temple he yells “Like I care!” and barges in. When Rikku tells him that summoner pilgrimages must stop, he questions her answer because (from his perspective) it doesn’t make sense.
On the other hand we have Yuna. She’s the main character of the story. That’s right, in FFX you are playing as the token love interest. Anyways, Yuna also acts like teenager but in a very different way: selfless and compliant. Just like Tidus, these are her greatest strengths and her greatest flaws. Yuna will always try to put the needs of others before herself. She doesn’t follow her own voice and keeps things to herself because she doesn’t want to upset anyone. An exemplifying moment of her character would be after Operation Mi’ihen: While everyone else is in shock at the utter devastation, she spends the whole night sending people’s dead souls and oversleeps. When she realizes she’s the last person to wake up, she frantically apologizes to the whole party over the state of her hair. Even Auron teases her over this (Auron: “Then we’ll go, as soon as the summoner fixes her hair”.)
Tidus and Yuna are complementary opposites, both struggling to find their identity, but what I like so much about their relationship is how they influence each other. Their love is mutual and both Yuna and Tidus change drastically as characters, each trying to be more like the other. Early on it’s subtle. For example, on the walk through Kilika woods, Yuna declares that “I want him close to me”. While this goes way over Tidus’s head, it’s notable because Yuna so rarely talks about what she wants. Conversely, Tidus who only cared about going home, sees Yuna perform The Sending and realizes that his problems are pretty small in comparison to the countless people of Spira killed by a flying space whale on a daily basis. We also see them encourage each other. When Tidus is frustrated and wants to just scream, Yuna says “go for it!”. Tidus, meanwhile, is constantly encouraging Yuna to complete her pilgrimage. Of course, this is tragic because Tidus has no idea that Yuna is about to sacrifice her life at the end of the pilgrimage and because she doesn’t want to break his heart, she keeps this part a secret and simply smiles.
Our heroes are challenged
Then Seymour comes into the picture and things get… complicated. Seymour proposes to Yuna. She obviously turns him down because what the hell. Then, half-way through the thunder plains, she suddenly changes her mind and Tidus starts to feel jealous. She claims it’s ‘for the good of all Spira’ but actually she’s on a secret mission to get rid of Seymour. Yuna didn’t want to bother others with the details of her plan, but as a result things go sideways and Yuna and Tidus are separated.
So then we have the grand revelation: Tidus discovers that Yuna will die if she completes the pilgrimage. This shocks him because Tidus usually just acts according to how he feels. When he realizes he was encouraging Yuna to walk to her death, he has a crisis of faith in himself. He realizes how oblivious he was, he was so focused on himself that he didn’t even notice the immense weight of Yuna’s journey (Tidus: “Was I… the only one who didn’t know?”). The part that gets me every time in this scene is when he turns to Wakka and Lulu, asking why they hid this from him and they admit it was simply too hard for them to say.
Meanwhile, when Yuna stands trial for Seymour’s death, she has her own crisis of faith. She discovers that the religious Maesters have gone against their own teachings and, worse yet, her death will not prevent Sin’s return; she had been lied to and is now branded a traitor. For the first time Yuna cannot place her faith in others and all of a sudden, she feels completely lost.
Now we get a scene that needs no introduction as Tidus suggests that she abandon her journey. For a second it almost seems like she’s considering it, until she tearfully realizes that she can’t bring herself to let down so many people. What follows is a scene as beautiful as it is bittersweet. They’re having this moment because they know they don’t have a future together.
Our heroes switch places
Now Tidus and Yuna are at an impasse. Yuna remains steadfast in her will: even if it only brings ten years of happiness, that’s enough to for her to lay down her life. Tidus, meanwhile, refuses to accept this outcome and is convinced that he can find some other way of defeating Sin without her having to die. His determination inspires her. Her generosity inspires him.
This is where things get interesting. At the end of her journey, Yuna discovers that she must sacrifice the life of a guardian just to create the next Sin. This crosses the line, and for the first time Yuna makes an impulsive decision. She refuses to go through with this, and stands her ground before her own namesake, Yunalesca. Yuna now has to believe in herself despite a world in panic mode after she broke the only known way of temporarily stopping Sin.
Tidus, meanwhile, makes an ironic discovery. There is another option to defeat Sin but it comes at a price. He will have to forfeit his life (technically ‘become a dream again’ but same effect) and now suddenly he’s in Yuna’s place. This time, he’s the one who’s going to sacrifice himself for others to live and he tries to keep it a secret but Yuna isn’t as oblivious. She notices that he’s hiding something and calls him out at Bevelle temple (Yuna: “You’re a bad liar”). Still, she doesn’t question and he smiles like nothing’s wrong until the very end, where he admits to the whole group that after the dust settles, he will disappear.
And finally, at the very end, their behaviors are reflections of each other: Yuna shakes her head and rushes towards Tidus, refusing to believe he will fade away while Tidus accepts his fate with a smile.