Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Reflections on Final Fantasy IX (spoiler warning)

(These are my reflections on Final Fantasy IX for PS. RPGing is a personal hobby, and such exposition enhances the gaming experience for me. But it may not be of interest to many readers, so please disregard this post if that is the case).

I've just finished Final Fantasy IX, although I won't be turning off the soundtrack anytime soon. Nobuo Uematsu refers to it as his best work of the series, he having spent a year touring medieval sites in Europe for inspiration and arranging some 160 tracks, of which 140 are used (among my favorites are the themes of Eiko and Zidane).

Unlike the Dragon Quest series, FF games are not laced with religious and historical allusions. Cinna, a member of the shady (but decent) gang of bandits appropriately known as Tantalus (a thieving son of Zeus), shares a mistaken identity with Cinna the poet. Tantalus abducts Garnet for noble reasons, but in so doing earns (or cements) their reputation as no-good vagabonds. Fortunately, none of the group's members meet the same fate the Roman does.

There are other kinda-maybes, like the group's leader, Baku. He shares his name with the capital of Azerbaijan, where more than 10% of the population is made up of displaced persons and refugees.

Freya, having been reunited with her long-lost love, is to return to Burmecia to rebuild the decimated kingdom. As much of the population has perished, enjoying the fecundity of the Norse goddess she's named after would be a blessing. Further, her last name is Crescent, as in the Fertile Crescent. This would be more satisfying if she actually had lots of children and led the flourishing revival of Burmecia, but none of this is revealed as coming to be.

Psalms 75: 10 reads, "All the horns of the wicked also will I cut off; but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted." While I think Eiko (who retains her horn) is more admirable than Garnet (who has her horn cut off), the adopted princess is certainly not wicked by any stretch of the imagination.

For the most part, the names of places that are not unique to the game do not fit into the story in a particularly meaningful way (ie, girl's equip Minerva plates, Steiner's most powerful sword is the Ragnarok, and so forth), and they are sometimes nonsensical (ie, as the universe's greatest smith, it seems a more appropriate name for Hades (!) would have been Hephaestus).

If the classics lesson isn't one of the major attractions, the shared theme of finding one's way home is. Each of the characters (and not just the controlled ones--even Choco's making the journey), in addition to the shared desire to knock out Kuja, is searching for his individual telos. The answers are as diverse as the characters, but they're not fungible. There's the proverbial one thing, absolute in its existence, but different for each person.

This presents a reality missed by Blank Stalism and what I call the Ecumenical Man (or utopianism). The former presumes that environmental circumstances mold a person, and thus his fate is solely the product of his environment. To a limited extent this does apply to Vivi and Zidane, who are unique in that both of them were artificially created (but their triumph is overcoming their man-made directives), but it mostly misses the mark.

Would any amount of prestige and prosperity have been able to persuade Amarant to swear fealty to Alexandria as the kingdom's protector? No, yet Steiner eagerly does so without a thought given to any of the accompanying benefits. Steiner would never be able to embrace a perpetual wanderlust in search of palet-pleasers as Quina does. In turn, s/he would be a poor candidate for tracking down a lost warrior (and personal love interest) and bringing him back to defend the homeland, as Freya undertakes to do.

The Blank Slate worldview is contrasted by the Ecumenical Man, in which there is a universal proscription for happiness and meaning that is desirable fo all. Life is successful to the extent that one progresses towards this. Universal religions like Christianity and Buddhism are obvious examples, although there are secular versions as well (Marxism, the Noble Savage, etc).

Zidane, initially the aimless existentialist, harnesses his abilities to protect his friends. Upon finding out that he was supposed to infiltrate their planet so as to turn it over to Terra, he realizes this to be unconscionable, and sticks with the friends who have without hesitation come to his aid in the face of mortal danger. Eiko carries the torch of her ancestors that would've been extinguished if she bit the dust (how would Garnet have otherwise discovered her homeland?). Steiner sticks to the path he'd gravitated to in the beginning, but with a greater level of sophistication in so doing. That clearly is his purpose, but it cannot be Amarant's or Quina's.

All are on a journey to find the right garden to tend, as Montaigne might say, and thus are able to act cohesively as a group, but each garden requires cultivation practices that require a unique gardner--only the right person will do.

The theme of manufacturing life for nefarious purposes runs deeply throughout. Early on, the party makes it to the village of Dali to discover an underground factory where black mages are produced using Mist and caged chocobos. Zidane, Vivi, and Kuja are all later revealed to be produced for similar purposes. This loosely borrows from The Matrix. Indeed, Hironobu Sakaguchi's team pays direct homage to the film in the set of ending sequences, when Zidane burrows down into the heart of Terra as it is imploding to rescue the defeated Kuja (at 2:10):



The mass production of beings to be used as obsequious but ruthless soldiers in a campaign of conquest necessarily pulls at a commonly held fear of what cloning might lead to. That is, in the words of Steven Pinker (p226):

An army of zombies, blanks, or organ farms... the duplication of a body without a soul.
More than pulls at the fear, the game exploits it. The black mages are exactly that, an army of zombies that uncritically does the bidding of Brahne, and ultimately Kuja, who care nothing for them. Vivi's raison d'etre becomes undoing this evil, by trying to convince mages held under sway to break free of it, and by going at the source of their bondage, Kuja himself.

The mages create their own village, which they eventually share with the Genomes (Zidane's artificially created race), where the inhabitants are able to pursue their own lives in their own ways, using their own talents for their own purposes. Thus the dangerous experiment ends happily, in a way that would make Margaret Mead proud:

We must recognize the whole gamut of human [and black mage, Genome, flaming Amarant, and anthropomorphic rat!] potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human [et al] gift will find a fitting place.
Does this mean manufacturing life is a good idea, since the end product can be guys like Vivi and Zidane? Hardly--Kuja, who is also created, throws a big wrench into that conclusion.

Less ambitiously, maybe it is that each living creature has a soul--there's a ghost in that war machine with the pointy hat--and thus enjoys free will, even if it's made like Frankenstien's monster.

Or, as Garland and Kuja both create living things as pawns to do their bidding, perhaps it's that slavery is bad. Fair enough!

There is also an element of Carl Jung's "collective unconsciousness" in the dreamy place called Memoria that the party travels through at the end in front of the final showdown with Kuja.

This elicits more questions than answers. It is revealed that there is a pool of memories that all people share when Zidane witnesses Garnet's escape during the destruction of Madain Sari ten years in the past. As the memories are thought to only be accessible to those who experienced the actual events that form them, it is startling that Zidane is able to see the destruction. I was anticipating a revelation that Zidane was present as a young boy on the Invincible when Madain Sari was wiped out, but instead we get the fantastical shared-pool-of-universal-memories 'explanation' that feels forced in unnecessarily towards the end of the game.

Finally, a few remarks on the characters.

In social psychology experiments, people consistently overrate their own positive qualities. In moderation, this leads to self-assurance, to confidence. In excess, to arrogance and hubris. Zidane certainly isn't an exception to this rule. He seems to straddle the fence between healthy self-confidence and reckless overconfidence.



This turns out to be a tremendous asset, as he is less hindered than Vivi by his station in life. He's more willing to throw off the yoke of his intended purpose and move on with what he's made his own purpose. And even his boldness never really comes back to bite him. For example, he leads the hesitant party as they leap off the airship and into the unknown warp field between Gaia and Terra. They all could've plunged to their deaths, but instead they're all transported in one piece.

His name is French, which means "Gypsy" in English, is fitting, as he's of the mold of other spunky thieves from the series (namely Locke from the sixth title).

Vivi, whose name translates from Spanish to "I lived", has a personality that contrasts to Zidane's. He is diffident and ruminative. His lack of assertion and repeated hesitation, combined with his childlike appearance, create the sense of a befuddled being. Yet it is his thoughtfulness that allows him to grasp the big picture before anyone else in the party does.



Vivi is, understandably, the one who is inclined to "question everything". He initially flirts with solipsism. It serves as a psychological escape from his reality as a prototype of the mindless soldier who destroys stuff for a year before coming to a permanent stop. But it is through this dialectic inner-struggle that he is spurred to action, fostering independent thought--life, really--in the escaped black wizards on the outer continent.

For having the bulk of the first half of the story revolve around her, Garnet is pretty unremarkable. She doesn't make many decisions on her own, other than a futile effort to side with her adopted mother against Kuja. When she does, the outcome is either already fixed irrespective of what she decides to do (ie, when she elects to run away with Tantalus even as the group was in the process of abducting her), or things don't go well (ie, when Alexander is attacked by Kuja and she must command the Knights of Pluto).



That she uses Zidane's dagger to cut her hair shows that she continues to progress with his help*--his trusty weapon was the impetus for her alias assumption and the decision to conceal her royal status, and it is he who spurs her to cut ties with her tragic past. But even then, she is merely committing to following the rest of the crew in pursuing Kuja.

Steiner is portrayed as a silly knight who takes himself too seriously. His clunky armor and the playful moniker "Rusty" Zidane gives him accentuates this. But upon further reflection, it is hard to see him as anything other than unrelentingly noble. Somewhat naive, perhaps, but purely noble. He has sworn fealty to Alexandria, and goes about fulfilling this oath with the utmost diligence, in spite of a second-rate contingent at his command.



He appears foolish in turning his ire toward Tantalus instead of the powers that be in Alexandria, but the player has to remember that while it has become apparent to the one with the controller in his hands that the abduction is in Garnet's best interest, Steiner has no way of knowing this.

He retains a strong sense of honor even in dealing with foes, as when he rebukes the third black waltz for hurling the black mages off the cargo ship to their deaths, and when he decides to argue for a life sentence for Zidane instead of capital punishment, since Zidane did help the princess at one point, even though he abducted her and exposed her to mortal danger.

He's slow in realizing Brahne's evil intentions, but to fault him for it is to wield a double-edged sword. By all accounts, Brahne was a fair and good ruler to be trusted prior to her involvement with Kuja. That she unpredictably took an abrupt turn for the worse after so long is Steiner's tragedy, not his moral failing. If only all people were as noble as he, such deception and the need to detect it wouldn't ever come about.

Freya exits the forefront as quickly as she enters it. After meeting Zidane in Lindblum and proving her battle prowess at the hunting festival, she joins the group in a failed attempt to save Lindblum and then Cleyra. Before Cleyra is destroyed she finds Sir Fratley, who suffers from retrograde amnesia, the origin of which is never explained. But the reunion is banal and unsatisfying, and Fratley quickly leaves again. From that point on, her part is one of little significance.



Quina primarily provides comic relief. S/he's very much an epicurean (or more precisely, a gourmand) in the contemporary sense of the word, searching the world for tasty treats. That s/he, like his/her relative who adopted Vivi, ends up embracing outsiders instead of fearing them (to the irriation of his/her sensai) is a cliche victory against 'xenophobia', I suppose.



Eiko follows in the footsteps of the orphan Rydia from IV and Relm from VI. She's an audacious and precocious child (said to be six years old, putting Lisa Simpson to shame) who aspires beyond her years, usually resulting in an unhappy outcome for her but comical pleasure for the player, as with her unrequited crush on Zidane.

Like Steiner, Eiko elicits a mix of humor and pity. Also like him, she is one of the game's most admirable characters. Unlike her relative (cousin? Sister?) Garnet, she is not royalty. She does not command her own Praetorian comprised of Zidane, Beatrix, and Steiner, among others, as Garnet does (the pusillanimous Moogles who require more caring directed towards them than they dispense to Eiko don't count). Unlike the princess who commands Bahamut and Odin, her eidolon summoning is a decade away from maturity. She doesn't benefit from the beauty Garnet possesses or the education Garnet has received.



Yet she's the actionable one, the decisive one, the bold one, the vivacious one, the one not mired in paralytic self-pity. Cook for a dozen? No problem. Leap off of a flying airship? Sure thing. Persistently filch from a bunch of dwarves to feed her Moogle pals? Yep. Okay, the last one isn't without stain, but isn't she at least entitled to as much slack as Jean Valjean? She's just a kid, after all!

Amarant fills the badboy niche (like Kain from IV and Shadow from VI). He lives by a simple code that states those who are strong live and those who are weak die (sound familiar?). Except he's not really that strong, and Zidane licks him. Like a lone wolf who's been forced by the pack's alpha male to submit, he follows Zidane, remaining cynically aloof from the rest of the party until they make it to Terra, at which point he realizes that utter selfishness is self-defeating.



He isn't that dissimilar from Zidane, but however subtle the variances are, they demonstrate the difference between the ideas that genes (and by extension, organisms) are selfish in the commonly understood sense of the word and that they are selfish in that propagating themselves is the ultimate goal and so everything they do can be seen through that lens.

Amarant errantly does whatever he fancies without troubling himself with how it affects others. Ultimately, that amounts to not caring, or at least not giving adequate foresight, to what becomes of himself. He ends up without allies but with a big bounty on his head, and finds himself on his back after challenging Zidane. Amarant's but a rebel without a cause.

Zidane, on the other hand, epitomizes Richard Dawkins' selfish gene. He aids and protects a motley crew, but in Machiavellian terms, it's quite the prudent investment. His friends end up rallying to him in his most desperate moment, as he staggers along near collapse among vicious creatures in Terra. He ends up getting the young queen of one of the world's two super powers and ingratiating himself to the "regent" (a confusing term to describe Cid, who by all appearances is Lindblum's permanent king) of the other.

Just because that's the way things end up, there's no reason to ascribe such calculating motives to Zidane. This is merely a product of his natural valor and benevolent disposition. As the vignette reads, virtue means not needing a reason to help people. Zidane is 'selfish' not in that he cares only for himself, but in that he is successful in every way, as opposed to Amarant's self-absorbed (but counterproductive) dead-end selfishness.

*Humorously, after Garnet disappears from Lindblum ahead of a party meeting with Cid, Zidane knows where she's gone and shoots off to Alexandria after her. The problem? Alexandria is on the other side of the enormous Mist continent, and the crew only has one vessel for transportation, the Blue Narciss (a ship). From the cut scene, you'd think she'd just run across the street, but apparently she's run across half the world!

Next off, I continue the reclination process, to tackle the legendary Final Fantasy VII.

Also see my reflections on Dragon Quest VIII.

13 comments:

SFG said...

Ah, a fellow RPGer! I delighted in FF1, FF4, FF6, and FF7 in my younger years. I salute you across the political chasm.

Audacious Epigone said...

SFG,

Heh, what sweet ground to share, if that's all we're able to! I had ended in '96 with the death of the SuperNES, until last year, when I got back into RPGing with DQ8. Now I've played FF9 and just started FF7. Maybe I'm trying to hard to escape to NeverNever land, but I'm now vividly reminded of how and why I took so much delight in RPGs when I was younger.

John said...

I never would've guessed someone would play this(or any RPG for that matter) and review it so in depth. Anybody can grade gameplay and music, but you took a totally different look at it, nice job. How's the FFVII review comin' along?

Audacious Epigone said...

John,

Thanks. The VG industry is surpassing the movie industry on several fronts, including cultural significance. There are innumerable reviewers who review games based on a technical metric (replayability, music, graphics, play control, etc), but at this point little that approaches what is attempted in a movie review. I'm a novice, but having fun (and getting a lot more out of the games) by trying to be part of the inchoate VG reviewing 'community'.

FF7 strikes me as Luddite, bordering on downright misanthropic, with more than a couple 1984 allusions. I just finished the mainline story yesterday, but there are two bonus bosses I want to take on before I consider myself done with the game. Should be a challenge--FF9's Ozma definitely was (I don't use walkthroughs, so that tends to be the case).

Audacious Epigone said...

Re: how FF7 is coming, this is the response I gave to my skeptical brother after he'd written that I wouldn't be able to take the two special weapons without super Materia combos:

Only Cloud has level 4 limit. I never got Barret's, and I didn't quite get all of Homer's other limits maxed out to teach him Cosmo memory. Also, what does underwater materia do? I have no idea how to get knights of the round, though I think [friend] said it's via Chocobo which is not happening.

Doesn't matter baby, 'cause I beat that M-F!

Yeah, that's right. Apparently you only have 20 minutes to beat him, and I came close (like 2 mins left). I thought he kept regenerating, but appraently that was just his eyes. Cloud did 90% of the damage, the other two mostly used megaelixirs and life2. And yes, I recorded it.

Then I went and fought Ruby. The first few times, he kept stealing two of my people away, and every time he took Cloud (at which point I'd live for about 30 seconds more before either Red or Barret bit the dust). To hell with it, said I. I killed Barret and Red and went with Cloud alone. No attack materia, none of this combo crap said I needed to revive myself. No attack magic period. Just Fullcure, haste, regen, elixirs+hyper ethers, and my steel with Full-cut x4. Took me over an hour, b/c his defense is absurdly good. But I had 4x attack and Cloud on steroids, so every time the fool threw up the pincers, I smacked them for 9999x4. Two attacks and they were buried again (one if I was limited). Then I slowly but surely pounded Ruby himself, for about 8,000 (1500 or 2500, with about half my attacks being critical, at 4x each, plus counter attack every time I was hit). About forty minutes in, Ruby ran out of magic. It got less tense then. My dexterity was 255 (maxed), plus haste. My bar filled up so damn fast, but he could do up to 9,300 on some attacks, so I had to be cautious. I only attacked right after he did. Otherwise, I'd just wait to heal if needed. I was recording it, but at some point my camera ran out of juice, so I recharged it and then started recording again at the end. Really, I thought Ruby was harder, but there was probably some trick that would've made him easy.

While I didn't really like the game, the two final bosses presented formidable challenges.

Sideways said...

An interesting review that was worth the time to read. It also made me decide to start playing the game again.

I'd say that fFVII is significantly overrated (but wow, when it came out, it looked absolutely amazing graphically) and FFIX is somewhat underrated. 7 definitely represents a lot of the worst elements of the environmentalists.

If you really wondered, you probably know by now, but underwater materia lets you fight emerald weapon longer (you'll run out of time and drown or something without it) and knights of the round materia takes a gold chocobo, the hardest one to get.

Audacious Epigone said...

Sideways,

In FF7, I never obtained either the underwater materia or Knights of the Round, although I had heard about both. I beat Emerald weapon with 2 minutes and change remaining.

I hadn't played rpgs for almost ten years before starting up again last year, but through some friends and general cultural awareness, I'd heard much about FF7 and FF10, yet little about FF9. I, too, feel it seems to be underrated. Coming out just a year or so ahead of 10 probably didn't help much, as 10 moved as far forward graphically as 7 had back in the nineties.

squarepusher said...

The only videogame magazine out there that treats videogames as something other than throwaway entertainment is 'Edge Magazine', from the UK. It's the closest the industry has got to a trade magazine.

They have a website:
http://www.edge-online.com

Several of their print reviews have been published online.

They still use a rating system, but at least they don't get caught up in technical metricality. They're more concerned with game theory/game play than storyline, though.

Here is a retrospective on Xenogears (a Square RPG for the original PlayStation):

http://www.edge-online.com/magazine/time-extend-xenogears.

Audacious Epigone said...

SP,

Thanks for the additional insights in FFVII and the heads-up on Edge. I'm not going to watch the Xenogears retrospective yet though, because I'm planning on playing it after I finish up FF X-2.

sclop said...

I didn't know if you realized this or not because it's only in an ATE in Treno that, depending on your response, may or may not be revealed. Anyway:

Amarant was a security guard for the Treno Auction House (apparently a few years ago). One night Zidane came and stole an item. As he was running out, he was stopped by Amarant. Amarant insisted on a fight, and Amarant paid the price. Zidane turned it around and pinned the theft on Amarant.

Zidane apparently did not remember the incident, but Amarant sure does because that is why he became a wanted man. Freya then gives the advice: "Honesty is a virtue.
That's if you can manage to stay alive..." She then suggests
they were "destined to meet again." Indeed.

Audacious Epigone said...

Sclop,

I must have missed that. So that explains why Amarant is so obsessive about squaring off against Zidane. Yet he is not a bad guy. He even helps rescue Eiko from the female bounty hunter (whose name escapes me). I guess Zidane's repentance, unkown to him as it may be, comes when he goes back to rescue an injured Amarant.

Slarty said...

What a wonderful series of posts to stumble on! I greatly enjoyed reading your amplifications of some of the elements in these games.

I wanted to comment on your statement that FF games are not laced with religious and historical allusions. This may be true compared to DQ, but there is at least one significant exception, which is FF3, originally released only in Japan. From your comments elsewhere, I'm not sure if you've played it; if not, I highly recommend it, especially the translated famicom/NES version.

Anyway -- FF3 was a walking trove of mythological and other allusions, and is the original source for most of the enduring references that have become series mainstays. These mainstays account for some of the references you mention that don't fit with FF9. For example, Ragnarok, Steiner's best sword, appears in FF3 alongside the elder staff -- cut from Yggdrasil, another Norse reference -- and is accompanied by a message that suggests drawing the sword heralds doom. They are, relevantly, the last in a long series of sealed weapons. (Minerva armor actually originates in FF4; in that game, it raised the lady mages' physical stats while lowering their magical ability, a clear reference to at least the warlike side of Minerva.)

Other references in FF3:

- The game's entire story hinges upon the deceased Archmage Noah and the way he divvied up his powers among his three apprentices, a clear Biblical parallel. The most visible event that occurs as a result of one apprentice feeling disfavored is that most of the world is subsumed in a tremendous flood.

- The first village is named Ur. Ur was one of the oldest Sumerian cities, located by the Euphrates, and a river features prominently in the town map of Ur. It is mentioned in the Bible as Abraham's birthplace; the PCs were raised by the patriarch of Ur.

- Near Ur, there is a desert, the town of Kazus, and Sasoon castle; the latter two have been afflicted with a curse by Jinn, who must be sealed with a ring possessed by Princess Sara. The Arabian setting and allusion to Solomon are obvious; the biblical Sara, of course, was Abraham's wife.

- Past that area lies the town of Canaan, in case you needed any more convincing.

- Near Canaan is the mountain where Bahamut nests. Bahamut/Behemoth appears in Islamic and Arabian mythology as well as in the Bible. Bahamut is also the strongest summon in the game; the next strongest is his counterpart, Leviathan.

The interesting thing is that the game's theme revolves around the balance between light and darkness -- an idea that recalls Daoism (there is a Daoist PC class) but definitely not the Bible. More references:

- Nepto, the sea dragon - cf. Roman Neptune. He is feared by the Vikings.

- Hyne, the wizard who tries to take over the world using the Eldest Tree (this is the origin of the entire Secret of Mana series, of course), shares his name with an Australian timber company. No idea if there is a connection, but an odd coincidence.

- The town of Amur sits at the foot of a river; there is a river in Russia called Amur. Delilah, an old woman there, is another obvious biblical name.

- Bosses of mythological origin:
Medusa (Greek)
Salamander (alchemical)
Kraken (Scandinavian)
Gilgamesh (Sumerian)
Garuda (Indian)
Hecatonchire & Titan (Greek)
Amon (biblical king)
Scylla (Greek)
Cerberus (Greek)
Echidna (Greek)
Ahriman (Zoroastrian)

- More summons of mythological origin:
Shiva (Hindu)
Ramuh (Hindu)
Ifrit (Arabian)
Titan (Greek)
Odin (Norse)

- a HOST of regular monsters with names of mythological origin

...anyway, thanks for the interesting read and for inspiring me to waste some time writing this comment. cheers

Audacious Epigone said...

Slarty,

I just bought a gamecube to play gba cartridges on. When the sports season is over in october, I'm going to tackle FF6 first (it's been over a decade since I've played it and want to gather my thoughts in a contemporary review) and then move to 3 & 5, two in the series I've not yet experienced. Thanks for the primer!