Published: Mar 3, 2011 12:00:00 PM

Final Fantasy IX

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(originally published March 3, 2011)

Final Fantasy IX is a videogame, meditating.”

ff9_v1-resized-600There’s a difference between prolonged self-reflection and cowardice. Not risking anything can be a huge risk. You might stagnate. You might be accused of not caring, of beating a dead horse, or of trying to squeeze blood from a stone. Merely pretending to not take a risk though... that is a legitimate creativity Philosopher’s Stone. Aha, and now we can venture into the realm of satire, a flexible form if executed well. It grants you the ability to toy with critics, lean on well-worn supports, bait, switch, lure, surprise, skew, skewer, parody, honor, celebrate, and prove your understanding of creativity’s contents. If done correctly, that is. It allows you to laugh at your flaws and comment on myth—leaning too hard on self-reference can make art impenetrable though, and fortunately, Square and Hironobu Sakaguchi, Final Fantasy IX’s producer, knew exactly what they were doing when they crafted this timely, retro-piece. In the hive-mind that acts as the capitol city to, Final Fantasy IX is universally recognized as the third best video game of all time, a position it’s held for 11 years now. Here’s why:

  1. The hero, Zidane, is every little boy’s hero because he’s like the older brother we all wish we had growing up. He’s brash, kind, supportive, reckless, funny, and he’s got a tail that helps him accomplish his shenanigans.
  2. The villain, Kuja, has the kind of teeth that every little boy would love to scatter across the deck of a wooden ship. He monologues. He’s a little he-bitch.
  3. There’s a moment when the love interest, Princess Garnet, might kill herself, but instead does something with a dagger you could never see coming.
  4. The music is sticky honey. It clings to the roof of your mouth and it summers in your heart’s new-found unseasonable warmth. I want to ferment it into an alcoholic drink and then get smashed off of Final Fantasy IX’s music 12 years from now.
  5. Its opening takes place during a kidnapping that uses a flying theater boat as a diversion.

Yes, the beginning. The beginning is a Muppets-doing-Shakespeare moment (complete with a sly reference that the play being performed on the night of the kidnapping is by one ‘Lord Avon’). Then the story morphs into a swashbuckling version of Mission: Impossible before really getting down to business when your party of four traverses a forest that turns to stone, an then ice cave, and then finally a quiet hamlet with a windmill. We take a breather at the end of the first hour before finding out that our finally, officially kidnapped princess has her own plan, and the quiet hamlet has a dark secret.

The thing that makes the intro to this game so damn charming is that it role-plays how you or we would act in a roleplaying game. The flavor is set from your first bite. It knows if you were the hero, you’d know your role, winking and smiling at the camera while slathering the princess with amber-brown sappy charm. It knows the book-smart, but regal/clueless princess wouldn’t react to any kind of charm—her character is real enough to require time and proof of heroism in equal measures to be won over. It knows Vivi, our child-in-stature Black Mage, will be everybody’s favorite character because he’s friendly, in-touch, mildly-innocent, and is stronger in magic than his small body should allow. Seriously, he brings the hurt. Vivi is a Christmas bonus inked in at the bottom of your meager paycheck. Every game needs “FUCK YEAH!” moments, and with little Vivi dropping meteorites on the dragon that just incapacitated the princess, you get them in Final Fantasy IX right when you need them.

And the story knows this tale needs a condescending knight who is sworn to priggish-flavored chivalry, but earns back street cred with honest ass-kicking during those closer battles. Steiner is his name. He’s a goof and his repartee with Zidane is fun to watch. There’s a lot of tasteful Warner Bros. animation inside Steiner’s character. In fact, all of the characters are so clearly conceived and drawn to be themselves that you will find yourself giddy waiting for each genre trope to rear its head. This is an exemplary demonstration of a story hitting the established notes. Rewinding back to the Muppets-doing-Shakespeare reference from a few paragraphs back, that guy knew how to do tragedy (or rip it off from Italian folk stories, but who’s counting?). The best tragedies forecast an end to your characters’ recognizable happiness. You show something familiar and potentially ordinary, which is precisely how Final Fantasy IX starts. Oh, there’s an intelligent but naive princess! Oh, there’s a rebel with a charming heart! Oh, and that little magician will be his sidekick! And that big, brick-shaped knight in rusted armor will be their moral compass!

Dangle that in front of the player. Let them snuggle up the characters. Let them think they’re in control and that they know how the story will go. Then, when the player falls, and assumes they’ll be caught, let them fall. And they’ll fall hard.

Kuja arrives, face stained with rain, blinking at our heroes after they’ve fallen in a tough battle. He barely notices them. Saddling up on his pearlescent Portuguese Fuck-Dragon, his thunderstorm musical theme queues up. He exits. Disc 1 ends.

It’s a stunning turn. It’s too early in the story to equate it to the deaths of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet or Polonius in Hamlet—which are famous for being gigantic sign-posts whose oozy-black words read : “the shit will continue to spill until all main characters die”—but it’s an act-ending turn nonetheless. It’s here that Final Fantasy IX shifts from slow-burning 32-bit fairy-tale to an artistic-medium story-buster. A few things have happened:

  1. The bad guy has arrived. He is bad. So bad that we don’t even know his name yet. And he ignored us.
  2. Our (our!) characters have come far, but they’re coming off a tough loss, and we’re left for dead in a massacred city in the rain.
  3. The bad guy is selling his stockpile of magical golems, living weapons to the princess’ mother. For what reason? He’s so supremely bad, this can’t be all there is! What else? What else?!
  4. Our happy band of friends is scattered. The characters wonder aloud if those absent are worried about them.
  5. We, the player, have to get up off the couch, take a breath, and change discs to Disc 2. We miss this sensation. It is turning pages in a book you love. There’s a certain physical/mental friction point that is engaged when this happens. Yes, you have to change the disc, and that is the only thing you want to do right now because you need to know what happens! It’s the same feeling you get when you eat chicken wings, gnawing the meat off of the bones. It’s the feeling of ending a chapter in a book, flipping the page, and seeing Act II: Wherein We Learn Of Villainy, and there’s nothing but another turn of this weighty, frictious paper between you and Zidane’s fate. “Get it out of my way,” you growl. You leap off of your sofa, slam in Disc 2, and scramble back into your blanket-fort as the next scene fades in.

Act breaks are fun. There are too many of them on TV. We like shows on HBO and Showtime, mostly because there’s swearing in them, and that makes them more real, but we miss the act breaks. We don’t like ads, they tasteless intrusions into TV shows that we’re already paying cable companies to see, but the emotional crescendo and comedic punch line come straight from act breaks, very important tools in storytelling, so when premium TV networks do full-hour shows, it feels, just, odd, you know? It’s like a really long act in a play or a long chapter in a book, and the narrative can lose focus. Videogames had act breaks for a brief period in the form of the disc-change—a lost art.

Sidebar: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, and Final Fantasy IX have the best “end of Disc 1” moments in videogames. FF7 had Aeris’ encounter with Jenova, FF8 had Squall stealing a car and getting stabbed by Edea, and FF9 had Kuja’s arrival. All huge tonal shifts that wreak of a live theatricality missing from modern entertainment. The viewer is deliberately removed from the immersion and the story. Take a breath. And now we begin again.

BOOM! That feeling separating yourself from the story and collecting one’s thoughts is rad as hell! It was sort of a phenomenon of the PlayStation 1 era of videogames because the discs were cheap and they could cram tons of CGI movies and spoken audio into games to help them sell to glassy-eyed pre-teen fuckwits back then. This is sort of lost now, and we miss it on occasion.

Onward and downward. The story, formerly confined to the Mist Continent (yes, it’s called that for that exact reason), expands. Your map is now just the lower corner of a much bigger map. The “oops, the world is way bigger,” moment is also unique to videogames.

The game says, “You’ve only just begun.”

“Hell yes,” is your reply.

A detail that you’ve learned earlier is that despite the abundance of airships in Final Fantasy IX, they run on mist. Listen, there is no mist on these other continents and the oceans are filled with vicious monsters that eat ships. This is a Christopher Nolan-style detail nugget about the mist only being one continent and that it powers the airships. You forget about it when it’s mentioned, but it ends up being a pretty key plot point during the third act. Oh, what, Batman mentions re-routing part of Wayne Industries’ investments to wireless network development at the fifteen-minute mark of The Dark Knight?

BOOM! That cell-phone sonar location during the final battle with The Joker two hours later is rad as fuck!

Speaking of complexity, the gameplay in Final Fantasy IX is certainly not. You could almost play it with one button since the towns are filled with people you can press X to talk to or not press X to not talk to, and the battles are filled with monsters you can press X to whack with your weapon of choice, be it dagger, sword, club, lacrosse stick, wolverine claw, spear, or fork. There are a lot of ways to tune your enemy’s piano and some are immune or weak to this or that, and there’s minor magic management. It’s basic, it’s sort of slow, and it’s got great sound effects for when you enslicen a piece of bandersnatch off of that froth-mouthed freak-wolf. The game does this fun thing though where it will give you the chance to use new, stronger weapons or armor before you’re done learning the abilities that are stapled to your older equipment. Spells et al are learned by wearing a helmet or whathaveyou but you’ll most likely get a better one before you’ve worn it long enough for the character to fully absorb the ability. This results in some light juggling. It’s infrequent, the system maintains its simplicity. The simplicity keeps with the game’s relax-you theme. This is how it succeeds.

It’s in the presentation, the music, the story, and the world. The magic of human-videogame interface is what makes the thing hum. It’s a place you want to occupy and that’s the metaphorical steeplechase that trips people up when they can’t grasp the “why” of videogames as a medium “for” something. This game defies its digital upbringing. Final Fantasy IX has a point to make: games have come a long way. It’s quite reflective, the more we think about it. This game isn’t here to suck up your time. It isn’t here to give you something to do, to capitalize on popularity, to one-up a competitor, or to boast. Final Fantasy IX is a videogame, meditating. Its deeper recesses are accessed when your right brain is left to focus on something methodical. For example, when you wash dishes, you might hum to yourself. It’s a partly-made-up tune, mostly original, brought out by silencing a part of your brain that is often too noisy.

While one part of your mind is left to run on muscle memory, what’s left is the part that can think without interruption: “Wow! Just look at what’s become of sprites and pixels.” Self-reflective characters. Ornate, intricate worlds. Art, realized in its purposeful detailed twists. Similes within metaphors, external references, villains worth hating, motivations worth questioning, personal physicality being engaged when nostalgia is tickled or when a song is sung as Garnet steals Zidane’s dagger at the end of Disc 3. In that moment, traumatized after the death of her mother, the princess runs from the hero, blade in hand, to a view of her half-destroyed kingdom that served as the backdrop for our leads’ first meeting. She bounces to the edge, tilts back her neck, and cuts off all of her hair. And oh, shit, do the other characters have something to say about this. The princess goes from naive to adult—no taller, but somehow grown both up and out.”

Final Fantasy IX turns off the noisy parts of our brains if you let it. It does what it does for reasons that warm your heart. It isn’t here to sell you anything, or be marketable, or assert dominance. The game is neither hip nor cool, ironically two things that the pleather-ensconced Final Fantasy franchise gropes for with unrestrained horniness in the year 2011 AD.

No, instead, Final Fantasy IX, is trying to open your eyes to the possibility of something better. Look, when your girlfriend does something seemingly stupid, and you don’t understand why, and something gets ruined, like, we dunno, she throws away your container of week-old leftover spaghetti and meatballs from the fridge, so now there’s just a gigantic empty space on the shelf and you have nothing to eat. Well, what you realize a day or so later after brooding over your spilled meatballs, is that she was actually clearing space for homemade chocolate chip muffins, and it dawns on you that your default assumption of negativity is a bad approach. In movies, in books, in videogames, and in life, we err too often on the side of the brain’s din. We assume that the noise is the substance. For once, that isn’t the case. There’s more, if you can shut yourself off. There’s truth and there’s kindness in here. You can trust Final Fantasy IX to fill in empty spaces with homemade chocolate chip muffins.

-- Alex Crumb (originally published 3/3/11)
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