Some people spend New Year’s Eve preparing for the oncoming parties, the return their routine work schedule, and the changing of the calendar. I spent it completing Final Fantasy IX, a game I had been playing on and off for the last two months. One of my life goals is the play the main modern FF games (VII-XII) so when IX was on sale, I grabbed it so I could cross if off my list. But this game is much more than a check in a box; I can clearly see why this is the most critically acclaimed Final Fantasy game of all time. It is a fascinating and exciting adventure!
If I were to review this game, I would mention the spectacular music and sometimes laggy ATB system. I would praise its plot for actually making sense while still being unpredictable. A complex FF game that isn’t hard to follow…what sorcery is this? But that is a dialogue for another time. What I want to focus on is the powerful, personal journeys a lot of the characters take. Zidane, Vivi, Dagger and the others are all on a quest to save Gaia, but they are also on a journey (whether they know it or not) to look for a sense of self and purpose. I am amazed how FFIX took all these characters and made their development such thoughtful commentary on the human experience while juggling a complex story. Just as Gaia fights off Terra to be its own planet, the main cast also fight to establish their personal identity and give purpose to their fleeting lives.
This concept resonates most with Vivi, the black mage and cutest gumdrop of a character. A pet-peeve of mine is having characters not act their age. Prince of Tennis characters do not act like middle schoolers; no twelve year-old has the athletic ability or maturity to become a jounin ranked ninja like Kakashi did. But Vivi is introduced to us as a nine-year-old and acts like one. He’s childish, scared, excitable and absolutely adorable. I love him. But, as we know, he isn’t nine years old. And the realization of his origins are heartbreaking.
After being swept away in Princess Garnet’s abduction, he meets other beings that look like him and decides to join Zidane’s journey to discover more about himself. His travels lead him to an upsetting truth: Vivi is not human; he is a manufactured weapon of war used to destroy humanity with a short expiration date. Depression hits this innocent black mage. If he’s only going to live for a year, what’s the point in living? If he has no chance of attaining a normal life, is there even a point to having one?
Vivi’s quest for his identity ends quickly and tragically, but the questions that haunt him after are even more painful. He looks to his friends for advice and support. Zidane acts as his counsel, Dagger as his guardian, Steiner as his moral compass. Through his peers, he begins to piece together the traits that make up a human person and learns the worth of human lives through saving people. Then, the group arrives at Black Mage Village. This is a turning point for Vivi; being able to talk philosophical with those in the same situation can open mental doors you didn’t even know were there.
Vivi’s conversations with Mr. 288 act as his developmental catalyst; Vivi realizes that short lives can also be full ones. Throughout the game, the team goes back and forth to the village, each time giving Vivi more drive, determination and courage. The black mages have houses and stores, they bury each other, they hatch a chocobo and name it Bobby Corwen. These machinations have purpose, a will to live that they gave to themselves. They decide to live for each other and change their violent fates into peaceful, prosperous ones.
Vivi takes their life experience and applies it to himself. He gives himself purpose— to save Gaia, to support his friends, to keep alive the memory of his grandpa, to do his best. By finding the will to live within himself, Vivi’s confidence and decisiveness increase tremendously. He no longer trembles when he speaks; when Zidane is troubled by his origins, Vivi is the one giving advice. He starts making tactical decisions, consoling instead of being consoled, and becomes a bigger force in the game. His story of perseverance is beautiful, inspiring…and only one of the many powerful character pieces in the game.
Let’s tackle our protagonist next, shall me? When people would tell me FFIX was there favorite installment in the franchise, I thought little of it. But now I know why people love this game; Zidane is awesome. He’s just an all-around nice guy— the type who would give you the clothes off his back. He’s enthusiastic, optimistic, and has one of the game’s greatest lines: “Virtue. You don’t need a reason to help people.” The game spends two dozen hours making Zidane so likeable and trustworthy that the truth of his lineage hits the audience hard…but hits Zidane much harder.
We find out early on in the game that Zidane is adopted. He tells Dagger of a time he ran away from home to try to find his birth parents. His adoptive father beats him up pretty darn good when he returns for doubting his place, drilling the message that you can make a second family and have it be just as genuine into him. And that would’ve been a strong thread for our protagonist to pull. An orphan finds his place and makes his own family, how great! But no… FFIX isn’t just going for a thematic thread, it’s going for a heart string that it’s gonna pull till it rips the organ out of your chest.
*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
Zidane accepts that he may never know where he came from but is still curious. Who wouldn’t be? But the questions of his birth arise when the party enters a castle and only Zidane can understand the language. As the story comes to its climax, we discover Zidane is very much like Vivi, a tool created for destruction. Zidane’s world shatters; his life’s purpose of bringing people together through adventure and charity leads him to learn he was created to destroy the place he made his new family.
Where Vivi searched for his purpose, Zidane had one and got it ripped away from him. He begins to isolate himself from his friends, seeing himself unworthy of the love he constantly strived for. As a last ditch effort for living a meaningful life, he goes on a suicide mission to try and stop the apocalypse himself. But, of course, his friends save him from his downward spiral and show him the power of the family he created. Zidane is selfless and touched so many people throughout his journey, not even his dark upbringing can change that. It’s not about the person you were supposed to be, it’s about the person you are. Like Vivi, Zidane takes his fate into his own hands and reestablishes his purpose of living and loving on Gaia.
I was in awe of how well this story line played out. It was dark, heavy, and hopeful all at the same time. Zidane is an amazing protagonist— he shows us that the past truly doesn’t matter and, if you have the drive and the soul, you can make your life whatever you want it to be.
Wow, right? Two super impactful characters. But that’s only a sampling of the depth of this game's cast. Dagger, Eiko, Beatrix and others go through similar journeys of self-discovery, all inspired by Zidane's acceptance and empathy. Final Fantasy IX deserves all the praise it receives; it’s a game that shows the resilience of the everyman and the struggles that come with learning the world’s mysteries. I was glad I got the opportunity to play it— it was an amazing way to end 2017. Zidane is a fire ball of a character that I will always carry with me.
And shout out to Vivi for being the best little brother Zidane could ask for.
*I was also going to dig into Dagger’s story of her return to Madain Sari, but this is long so I decided not to. If you want to hear my thoughts on her character arc, please let me know!*