I know what you’re going to say: “Greg, you write about Final Fantasy a whole lot.” You would be right. I do write about it a whole lot. I think about it a whole lot, probably moreso than most other series. The fact is that I credit Final Fantasy as the reason I’ve always been into games. Sure, Legend of Zelda may have been my very first game, but it was Final Fantasy that hooked me, and Final Fantasy II (which, I would later find out, was the fourth game in the series) that solidified the hold that games have had on my life. It was just pretty amazing to me that a game could have a story to it, and I mean a real story with characters and interpersonal conflict.
I warn you, though, as good as Final Fantasy 4 is, it might not hold up to any real literary analysis. Eight year old me was pretty impressed, but I mean come on. There are moon wizards. But then, we can fast forward to just last year and also see a game released which featured moon wizards. I don’t know what it is about moon wizards, but man. We could probably chill out on them.
I guess what I’m saying is that video game writing has had its ups and downs over the years. It’s a new art form, and it’s one that many people have struggled with how to use effectively as a storytelling medium. Some people get it, and some don’t. The medium itself has evolved so fast that storytelling techniques utilizing it have had to evolve as well, and the evolution is not always a graceful one. Voice acting in video games has brought about its own issues. The most obvious one at the time was the amount of space that voiceover tracks would take up on a disc, but even after that problem was solved the issues of quality remained. The simple fact is that writing had to take into consideration how a line would sound when spoken out loud, and this turned video games into screenplays more than simply books with a graphical interface.
The thing about books, though, is that there is usually a lot more to them, for exactly those reasons. And if you look at games from, say, the very late Playstation 1 era, there’s something that should be noticed. We were really, truly on the verge of something special there, before the medium evolved.
All this brings me, of course, to Final Fantasy IX.
The end of the first Playstation system’s life was definitely an odd time. Its successor, the PS2, had already been released and was very slowly but very steadily building up its game library, but the fact that it was backwards compatable with the entire PS1 library meant that the PS1 got an extended tail end of its lifecycle. While Squaresoft’s development team was almost certainly already working on the series’ first entry that would feature voiceovers, the technically amazing Final Fantasy X, the company also decided to capitulate on that extended PS1 lifecycle and create kind of a capstone to the Final Fantasy experience that existed up until that point. This is the game that we know as Final Fantasy IX, and by most people’s reckoning it’s a bit of an oddball. Sure, it features lots of series staples, specifically the Black Mage, White Mage, and Summoner character designs, as well as a setting firmly rooted in high fantasy. However, games 6-8 in the series had evolved past what everyone considered the ‘classic’ designs and created worlds that were rooted in a kind of pseudo-modernity that evolved from the industrial revolution (FF6) to the near-future space-age (FF8). The fact that FF9 was a throwback really threw a lot of people off.
It’s really a sad thing, though, because the writing in that game was on point.
From the beginning, the game is different. While FF6-8 open with, in order, a military operation, a terrorist operation, and a duel that transitions into a military operation, FF9 opens with a play. The opening sequences give the player control over two characters whose lives revolve around the play: Zidane, one of the actors who also doubles as a thief and kidnapper, and Vivi, a young boy whose attire is a throwback to the early black mage designs that are the series trademark. The way that the world is viewed through their eyes establishes a lot about the world itself. Zidane is part of a troupe of con artist actors, and Vivi is, it seems, nothing more than a young boy visiting a big city for the first time. Both of these viewpoints establish the city of Alexandria, and indeed the world of the game itself, as being very populated.
For all its cinematic immersion, most Final Fantasy games are very character-driven. The world in most cases is mostly just a container for the hero party, the villains, and a few prominent NPCs to eventually play around with phenominal cosmic powers. This was originally out of necessity: there wasn’t THAT much memory space to give many NPCs all that many lines, after all, which is a problem that persisted through the NES and SNES entries in the series. In contrast, the world of FF9 is, for lack of a better term, ‘lived-in’. Before very much happens that has any relation to the main plot, Vivi can explore Alexandria and find jump-roping children, card-playing merchants, pickpockets, moogle travelers, and a slew of people whose only contribution to the plot or the game world at large is to live in it. That’s not to say that these things aren’t present in, say, FF7, either. There are tons of people in Midgar, but in contrast, they aren’t very memorable, and they don’t necessarily add much to the world itself.
The way that the dialogue is presented and flows is also kind of unique to the game. While all the Playstion 1 FF games present text as speech bubbles intead of as a static text window, FF9 probalby uses them in the most effective manner. The placement and timing of the speech conveys the progression of the conversation, and lends a kind of flow to the dialogue that, to be honest, only really works because the dialogue is not spoken. The way the text overlaps, the way conversation can be displayed as being natural, casual, formal, or awkward simply by how and when the text bubbles appear, and the way that scenes fade in and out are all little stylistic things that add to the unique-ness of the game.
The way information is presented to the player about various characters is also unique in that there is a lot that is expected to be inferred through context instead of being outright stated out loud or presented through direct scenes. One of the best and most subtle scenes in the game is the introduction of the character Freya. The flow of the scene goes something like this: Zidane, having left the rest of the party in order to go someplace where he is more comfortable than he would be in any formal environment, ends up at a bar. He walks in and sits down. Everyone in the bar gives him a glance, then goes back to what they’re doing. He casually asks the bartender for “the stupid special”, and after being shrugged off like this is an everyday occurance, he proceeds to immediately flirt with a waitress, who also treats this as a commonplace annoyance. This establishes Zidane’s relationship with the city and the people in it, without him ever having outright stated that he has a long history in that particular city. After a few moments, a woman who until now has just been in the background, starts to trade insults with Zidane. Zidane then proceeds to get her name wrong twice, and after he finally gets it right, she gives him a kind of ‘screw you’ look and they both sit down at the bar together as if they had been doing that same exchange forever. This woman is Freya, who eventually becomes a member of the adventuring party. From that exchange, without any actual flashback or outright explanation, it can be inferred that Zidane and Freya have known each other for a long time, and have a history that is built on casual antagonism with an underlying friendship and, depending on how much one reads into his teasing about getting her name wrong, a possible past fling.
I can’t think of a single other time in the series, or really most other series, that a main character was introduced so nonchalantly and also so effectively.
All this isn’t to say that the game doesn’t have its low points. Like most, if not all, Final Fantasy games, this one hits a low in the last third of the game when the characters start dealing with world-destroying powers and entities. Final Fantasy 9 is at its best when it is the story of a world and the people who live in it, and when things skew toward the cosmic, the story suffers for it. The characters and themes, however, persist. It’s a credit to the strong characterization present in the game that the characters stay true to their development through what are admittedly somewhat poorly executed plot points at the very end of the game. Because of that characterization, the narrative low point in FF9 is not nearly as bad as some similar lows in other games in the series, and at the very least the characters and themes remain well-developed.
What all this comes down to is that while I can’t fault video games for making a large push toward emulating movies, I think that the last days of the original Playstation were a very special time in gaming history. Even though games like Final Fantasy X represent the direction that the storytelling medium began to go, Final Fantasy IX represents the culmination of where games had been before then. It also represents another narrative possibility for the medium, one which would be ignored for a few years and then revived in handheld games that also face technical limitations when it comes to audio tracks and graphical fidelity.