Illka has succinctly remarked on an endearing attribute of video games that speaks in part to why they're leaving the movie industry in the dust:
The reality [is] that despite selling more than movies, video games still fly under the radar and thus get to operate under very different social rules and constraints than, say, mainstream television shows and movies, especially since video games are pure products of the the engineer and nerd culture that is completely different from, say, the culture born of marketing, social sciences and various "critical studies" that currently dominates Hollywood and print media.This is not to say that the virtual gaming world is devoid of leftist or progressive themes--Final Fantasy VII took misanthropic environmentalism to the extreme, for example--only that there is far less territory strictly off limits in the gaming world as compared to other popular forms of entertainment.
So it is with the tenth fullscale installation of the Final Fantasy series. How propitious it is for the story to be brought to mind in front of the Presidential election this November. Seymour, the primary antagonist, embodies many of the worst fears of Obama's detractors--leveraging his biracialism for political advantage and maintaining a public veneer diametrically opposed to his history and the actual objectives he strives to fulfill.
Born of a human mother and a Guado father, Seymour's childhood is an emotionally traumatic one. He was neglected by his Big Man father, an important leader of the Guado, who would record a warning ahead of becoming a victim of patricide that his son's corruption was his fault as a failed father. Seymour was abandoned by his mother who became a Fayth (thus removing herself from the world of the living) while he was a kid. Raised by Guado, the half human Seymour spent much of his formative years brooding alone.
Despite this inner turmoil, he showed promise as a gifted speaker and potent magic user. His mother's conversion into a Fayth allowed him to summon Anima, a tortured but powerful aeon and personification of the emotive side of Seymour's soul. (In Jungian psychology, the anima is the female side of a man's unconscious mind, while more generally in psychoanalytical mythology it is the underlying influence on a person's thoughts, behavior, and personality--it's basically interchangeable with the word "psyche").
By harnessing the power of Anima and combining it with his sharp mind and rhetorical prowess, Seymour attracts the notice of Yevon's (the ecumenical 'Church' that is run by four 'high priests', or Maesters--two humans, one Guado, and one Ronso) ruling class. In announcing his selection as Maester, he is billed as a racial healer who, half human and half Guado, will be able to bring the races together and integrate the separatist Guado into the mainstream (and mostly human) Spiran society. Demonstrating his messianic credentials, Seymour calls upon Anima to ward off one of Sin's attacks on Spira much like Isaiah called upon God when Jerusalem was under siege:
King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz cried out in prayer to heaven about this. And the LORD sent an angel, who annihilated all the fighting men and the leaders and officers in the camp of the Assyrian king. So he withdrew to his own land in disgrace. And when he went into the temple of his god, some of his sons cut him down with the sword.Seymour's ideas of healing differ from conventional conceptions, however. A life of emotional suffering has led him to the Buddhistic conclusion that all life is suffering, and that to end Spira's suffering he must end all life in Spira. To achieve this, he must infiltrate Sin, take the reigns, and obliterate life itself. In his words, "Life is but a passing dream. The death that follows is eternal."
That puts him at odds with another biracial aeon summoner. Yuna's different colored eyes are not a result of heterochromia, they are a manifestation of her half human, half Al Bhed heritage. Like Seymour, she is seen as a prospective savior of Spira. She even walks on water:
While Seymour bolsters John S Bolton's assertion that the mixed-race are not natural bridges but natural dividers, in Yuna's case it's not so clear. Her intentions are clearly noble, but an argument can be made that Seymour's are as well. Initially, she does not stray from the teachings of Yevon. And the teachings of Yevon call for a literal implementation, over and over again, of what Paul explained to be God's intention:
We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.So begins her pilgrimmage to enlist the aid of the Fayth and their aeons in a bid to confront Sin and knock it out of the picture for another several years of calm before the inevitable process repeats itself. Seymour's intention is to insert himself into that pilgrimmage and ultimately become the one she chooses as the final aeon necessary to vanquish (and eventually reinhabit) Sin.
FFX breaks with other titles in the series in the prominent role organized religion plays. That has traditionally been territory Dragon Quest has explored but Final Fantasy has left alone. Understandably so, given DQ's relative popularity in Japan, where the religious landscape is more pluralistic and syncretic than it is in the US.
Unlike DQ, where a more-or-less balanced account of organized religion is offered, FFX goes for the jugular. Yevon is a corrupt institution with teachings it hypocritically does not adhere to (the use of Machina, for example, is forbidden yet at Bevelle--Yevon's Vatican--they are heavily utilized). Its followers are dupes, even if well-intentioned (like Shelinda or poor Wakka) and its leadership is merciless.
For example, in Operation Mi'ihen, the Crusaders and the Al Bhed team up to do battle with Sin. Maesters Seymour and Kinoc, the later who is head of Yevon's warrior monks, are present to oversee the operation, which both know will end badly for Yevon's coalition, a coalition that doesn't actually involve anyone from Yevon on the front lines. That's why they're present--to make sure it's executed, ensuring a staggering loss of life for the Crusaders and the Al Bhed.
The Crusaders are a military order ("Templars" or "Hospitallers" would've been a more appropriate name for them, but would risk being lost on some players relative to the broader name recognition of "Crusaders") born out of a conflict with Yevon. They are devoted to fighting Sin and its spawn. Kinoc's efforts to guarantee their downfall is surreptitiously reminiscient of King Philip IV's destruction of the Templars, whom Philip, like Kinoc, owed much to for their previous military assistance.
Both Kinoc and Philip saw destorying these respective military orders as the best way to erase their debt and free themselves from potential military challenge in the future. Like Philip, who martyred Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay cried out as he died would soon face him before God, Kinoc was on borrowed time. Both Philip and Kinoc would be dead within the year of running the military orders they were putatively aligned with into the ground.
The Al Bhed are a curious race of Nordic-looking pirates*. They are entirely secular and consequently detested by Yevon, the Guado, and much of the human population. Unsympathetic to Yevon's ludditism, they rely heavily on the machina of the past. As the technological knowledge required to create machina has been lost over the last thousand years, the Al Bhed are only able to drive the car, not understand how or why it works. Their situation brings to mind that of Europe during the Middle Ages, after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Thomas Sowell writes:
Europeans lived for centuries with the presecne of ruins more magnificent than anything they were capable of creating or even restoring. It is hardly surprising that they looked back at the ancients with awe, long before they developed the modern Western tendency to look forward to greater accomplishments in the future than those of the past of the present.As atheistic separatists, pirates, and kidnappers, equipped with potent mechanical weapons and the willingness to harness technological knowledge to challenge the prevailing stasis, Yevon's desire for the Al Bhed's destruction is easy to understand. In a rebuke of the extreme misanthropic environmentalism of FFVII, the regressive position is not held up adoringly but instead seen as a dire obstacle to be overcome. Maester Mika explains the stasis Yevon is to maintain: "Yevon is embodied by eternal unchanging continuity, summoner... Those who question these truths--they are traitors!"
Kinoc's giddiness in front of the impending failure is hard to miss, and Auron coldly receives his old comrade as it is about to be executed. The more thoughtful and tactful Seymour engages a skeptical Wakka over the operation, arguing that pragmatic concerns must outweigh strict orthodoxy in trying times, and anyway the intentions of the Crusaders and the Al Bhed are both good, so he must 'assist' them.
Yevon never finds redemption. It falls to pieces as the story unfolds. Maester Kelk, a Ronso, shows signs of genuine concern over Seymour's murder of his father Jyscal, but it is not long after that point that he is rubbed out by Seymour, just as Seymour knocked off Kinoc. Maester Mika turns out to have been an unsent for some time. By definition, the unsent are those who've not accepted death and grow increasingly resentful of the living in their zombie state, caught in limbo between the world of Spira and the Farplane, where the souls of the dead find eternal rest**. Whether or not he understands that Yevon is perpetuating the spiral of destruction that has continued to wreck Spira for a millenia isn't discernible, but as he comes to further resent the people of Spira he cannot possibly have their best interests at heart.
Yet despite the designation of the unsent as those who've not yet accepted their deaths and must therefore be forcibly sent by a summoner lest they wander the world aimlessly, Auron is the most purpose-driven character in the game. Having experienced the cruel Sin cycle firsthand, he ensured Yuna would be safe by placing her under the protection of Kimahri before dying. As an unsent he then 'travelled' to Zanarkand during its antiquity to bring Tidus to Spira, joined Yuna's party (with Tidus in train), and steadfastly kept the party on the road to Zanarkand with the modest goal of destroying Yunalesca, Jecht, and finally Yu Yevon himself, thus overturning the whole structure the Sin cycle rested upon and in the process ridding Spira of its need for Yevon.
It might be unfair to Kimahri to designate Auron as the game's most determined. The Ronso are a primitive race with a warrior culture respecting little other than physical strength. Their's is a closed society. Consequently, Kimahri's shameful banishment from the tribe after refusing to submit to Biron after losing to him in a fight is accentuated by his subsequent devotion to Yuna. Yet it is from this devotion to her that he draws the strength needed to topple Biron in their rematch. This warrior ethos stifles his communication with Tidus, who finds asking questions gets him the same treatment Ibn Fadlan frequently received when he queried the Norsemen--the silent shaking of the head and a cold shoulder.
But Kimahri's devotion is undivided. He challenges Tidus early on to ensure that he is worthy of guarding her, and only opens up to Tidus after Operation Mi'ihen, when Tidus' commitment to Yuna has become clear. Although as a Ronso he is naturally distrustful of the Al Bhed, on the way to Guadsalom he makes it clear that he trusts Rikku as an individual, as he has seen her devotion to Yuna firsthand. Following the escape from Via Purifico (literally "the road to purification"), Kimahri doesn't hesitate for a moment to fatally hold up Seymour so the others are able to escape. Against the advice of Auron, who doesn't have Seymour on his radar screen, the rest of the party returns to save Kimahri.
Kimahri is similar to Steiner from FFIX. His unrelenting devotion makes him appear naive. But in a world where everyone's motivations are as pure as his are, that naivete no longer serves as a weakness. He is only susceptible because of the evil of others.
He also illustrates how the Japanese like to deal with underachieving minority groups (think the Native American Red XIII from FFVII). His dress, his name, his voice***, and his weaponry all strongly suggest that he is sub-Saharan****, but he's not black--he's blue. And he's not human, he's an anthropomorphic lion!
Wakka and Lulu are supporting acts. The affable (he is a Pacific Islander) Wakka brings refreshing warmth to a story that is in its first couple of hours cold and vertiginous:
He instantly strikes up a friendship with Tidus that is more natural than any other that develops between any of the characters. As is revealed later, this is enhanced by Tidus' resemblance of Wakka's late brother and Lulu's fiance, Chappu. Wakka's not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's pragmatic. In crossing over submerged Al Bhed ruins built against the advice of Yevon on the Shoopuf, he asks a rhetorical question of relevance to Americans: "Good lesson. Why build a city over a river, ya?"
Both Lulu and Wakka serve as plot dumps, in addition to voicing the views and concerns of the general population. They are active adherents to Yevon's teachings, which they (Wakka especially) reflexively defend.
Rikku adds some spice to the equation. She is the most superfluous character, as the story isn't dependent upon her at all--Cid could've offered assistance to Yuna without the aid of an intermediary. He is the summoner's uncle, after all.
Spira's story is one with an overarching theme of sacrifice coarsing throughout. The Sin cycle is founded upon a steady stream of self-immolating summoners. The moloch is never permanently sated. According to the teachings, Sin always returns as a reincarnation of a guardian of the very summoner who subjugated it years before, all due to the misdeeds of the Spiran population.
Yuna is to play the sacrificial lamb, just as her father did a decade prior. For this her popularity is almost universal. Finding her in the field, the Spiran scholar Machean greets her, in an allusion to the famous meeting between David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, by saying, "Lady Yuna, I presume?" Following in her father's footsteps, she determines at a young age that her life will be forfeited for the benefit, however temporary, of the Spiran people. When Tidus challenges her on this after the first battle with Belgemine on the Mi'ihen Highroad, Yuna responds that defeating Sin is something she must do because "a time when people can sleep safely is worth anything, no matter how short it is."
Yuna's willingness--eagerness, really--to sacrifice herself to (temporarily) defeat Sin might appear to reveal her as the moral apotheosis, all the more so to one living in the midst of the navel-gazing facebook generation. She's Christ in a religion that has more than one of them. But to read it this way is mistaken. Yuna is taking an easy moral path. She's been in cruise control since deciding to make the pilgrimage as a child. Her life means little to her. So then is her sacrifice, separate its real-world consequences, of little moral consideration. To the contrary, to those--Rikku, Cid, and Tidus--for whom Yuna's life is of greater importance than it is to Yuna herself, her self-sacrifice is an act of tragically misguided good intent or even of selfishness.
Tidus is perhaps the one who is able to tip the scales to dissuade Yuna from continuing the Sin cycle. The Al Bhed attempt to save summoners--against the summoners' own wishes--from themselves, but Yuna's guardians keep it from happening to her. Rikku knows her cousin faces certain death by following uncertain teachings, but with the support of Auron, Lulu, Wakka, and Kimahri, in addition to her own convictions, Yuna doesn't budge. Tidus, an enthusiastic supporter of Yuna's pilgrimage to defeat Sin, only finds out much later that part of that pilgrimage involves Yuna's death. Upon this revelation, he immediately switches sides and conspires with Rikku to find a way to avoid Yuna's death at the final summoning.
Little comes to fruition from their conspiring, but Tidus' protestations clearly way heavily on Yuna, as the intimate scene at Lake Macalania illustrates^:
It is the confrontation with Yunalesca that pushes Yuna over the edge. In the face of Yuna's self-immolation, Yunalesca makes it clear that the Yevon teachings are bunk when Wakka and Lulu challenge her. The somber ceremony, in which Yuna is to choose one of her guardians to become the final aeon, gets contentious and then downright belligerent. Yunalesca will not be aiding in the final aeon creation, for this summoner and her guardians have now come for blood. Auron, who'd been guiding the process towards this outcome from the story's opening in Zanarkand 1,000 years prior^^, exhibits an uncharacteristic burst of animation as the battle begins that was only characteristic of him before he died. He has been living (heh) as a zombie in Spira for a decade in anticipation of this moment:
After exposing the falsity of Yevon's teachings, defeating Yunalesca, breaking into Sin, and putting Jecht to rest, Yuna makes the ultimate sacrifice. To destroy Yu Yevon and thus end the Sin cycle forever, she vanquishes her loyal aeons who've been indispensable in the all that has transpired. She does this knowing it is also the death knell^^^ of both Auron and Tidus. And she must live on with this sorrow to try and piece back together a very broken Spira. Calling it quits in the meeting with Yunalesca would've been a much easier out.
As Yuna shows the failings a reckless disregard for one's own existence brings, Tidus demonstrates the more apparent failings of being wrapped up in one's self. As he makes his way through Spira, he is initially concerned with little other than finding a way back home. He is haunted by his father, who displayed the same overarching desire to get back to the Zanarkand of the past. But as Tidus witnesses the mass sending at Kilika, he is drawn in by Spira's suffering. The love he develops for Yuna manifests itself as a tireless search for a way to prevent the pilgrimage from ending in her death. In between Mt. Gagazet and Zanarkand, the Fayth make it clear in a dream that while Yuna may live through the showdown with Yu Yevon, Tidus will not. In either victory or defeat, he will cease to exist. Yuna suspects he is hiding something, but as she hid her impending doom from him for so long, he withholds his from her.
Drawn against his will into a wrecked foreign world, Tidus ends up paying the ultimate price for its betterment. FFX portrays religion in a very unflattering light. Unlike the more nuanced approach of Dragon Quest VIII, there is nothing redemptive or inspiring about it. The 'hope' Yevon's teachings inspire is clearly a false one that does not address any spiritual need whatsoever--it only serves to assuage the people's fears that they'll be annihilated by Sin today instead of tomorrow. Yunalesca puts it succinctly when she says, "Death is the final liberation... It is better for you to die in hope than to live in despair."
Tidus' ordeal is truly Christlike. He is thrust into a world that ranges from indifference to dislike of him, has it revealed to him that he must give his own life to redeem the place, and does so against his wishes but with the understanding that it is not his will to be done, but something greater than himself at work. In this, he steps out of his father's shadow. Jecht gave himself up so Spira might have ten short years of peace. Tidus did so to give it an everlasting peace.
Final Fantasy X does not close with its participants living happily ever after. In many ways the ending is deeply unsatisfying. The protagonist disappears from Spira as abruptly as he entered it. The bonds he formed with the people of that world are torn away, and we're left with the heartbroken love of his life facing a devastated Spira that is left in tatters, without a unifying body (previously Yevon) to bring together the hostile races. Our protective instinct kicks in and we want to be there to put the pieces back together. There is some comfort in knowing Kimahri, Lulu, Wakka, and Rikku are still there, but it's far from complete.
Unpalatable as it may taste, it's an ingenius metaphor for speaking directly to us, the rpgers. A great game gets the player wrapped up in its universe, allowing him to suspend his disbelief and become engrossed. The characters are more than virtual avatars, they are real people. Yet like so much else, the magic is fleeting. FFX does more than just let us experience painful disengagement as players in the real world, it injects that pain into the story itself. Thus we are hit by it twice--in the traditional way as game players always are, and also vicariously through the characters themselves. Instead of fading into the credits as we see everyone living happily ever after, the people we've spent fifty hours with say their goodbyes to us directly. As the name of the track implies, someday the dream must end.
* There is some reason to entertain the idea that the Al Bhed are an allusion to the Islamic Golden Age (basically the first few centuries after its birth, when it inherited 'pagan' Arab and Persian mathematics and astronomy before, as Toby Huff argues, it brought advances in them to a halt), juxtaposed to Europe's 'Dark Ages', between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy, as represented by Yevon. Perhaps, but the rapid expansion of Islam had a transformative effect on the Middle East and Persia as it spread, yet the only thing Islamic about the Al Bhed appears to be their name (they're all blond, and Rin sounds Swedish).
** The amount of space devoted to the metaphysical aspects of FF games are something I tend to minimize. I find them overly fantastic and rarely flushed out well enough to make much sense of. They strike me as unnecessarily distracting and usually disappointing.
*** John DiMaggio (voice of Bender from Futurama), who is white, does his voice (as well as Wakka's), but in character he sounds like James Earl Jones doing Mufasa from The Lion King.
**** The Mt. Gagazet musical track has a melancholy Amerindian edge to it, however.
^ In addition to the bemusing Al Bhed, Tidus has European complexion and features, but conspicuously 'Asian' hair. We have no reason to doubt Jecht's paternity, but maybe his wife's utter dependence on him is her way of atoning for past infidelity (or maybe she's just a bad mother, like Linda from Brave New World). Father and son bear little resemblance to one another. Jecht has dark hair and dark eyes (to Tidus' blond hair and blue eyes), and with his gruff voice that accompanies a gruff personality, could be a cariacture of white rednecks. When confronted about his drinking problem, he quips, "I can stop anytime I want. But why do today what you can leave for tomorrow?" As Sowell writes in Black Rednecks and White Liberals:
The cultural values and social patterns prevalent among Southern whites included an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneuriship, reckless searches for excitement...Finally there's Oaka, the travelling Scotish merchant from the 19th Century, who must've warped in from Poland.
^^ That Auron keeps this to himself throughout the pilgrimage until the last moment deserves a spot on a tabulation opposite Peter's Evil Overlord list. He presumes as long as he is there to guide the party, their ignorance is inconsequential. Not only is does this cause unnecessary emotional hardship for everyone else, one can't help but wonder how Yunalesca would've ever been challenged if Auron were to give up the ghost somewhere along the way. When accosted by Rikku for this, he unsatisfyingly responds "If I had told you the truth, would that really have stopped you from coming?" Sir Auron, that's a hypothetical question, not a rhetorical one!
^^^ Okay, Auron will be sent to the farplane (I guess), and Tidus will end up in an infinitely large body of water, swimming around alone. They might as well be dead. As mentioned previously, the metaphysical stuff annoys me.