Final Fantasy IX : Let the show begin !

Final Fantasy IX : Let the show begin !

Final Fantasy IX (hereafter abbreviated FFIX) brought the PlayStation trilogy of the twin-letter saga to a bold close. The ultimate incarnation of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s obsessions at the height of his fame, FFIX brought medieval fantasy back to the fore in its purest form, after the steampunk and neo-futuristic excursions of the previous opuses (FFVI, VII and VIII). And yet, despite the obvious differences in the conceptualization of these fictional universes, it’s clear that the experiments of yesteryear have informed the modeling of this new world filled with castles, monarchs and knights straight out of fairy tales. The pollution generated by Final Fantasy VII‘s Mako reactors reflects the murderous fog covering the lands of Hera, where Final Fantasy VIII‘s Triple Triad card game was emulated through its successor’s Tetra Master. More than ever, each episode builds on its predecessors, and even more so, drawing on the saga’s ever-growing heritage.

In this sense, FFIX stands out as a sumptuous work, the testament to the vision of a creative mind tirelessly haunted by the same obsessions, over and over again, that it tries to refine year after year. Beyond its childlike setting that evokes the universality of fairy tales (the 3D representation of character models, for example, is a skilful amalgam of the realism of FFVIII and the SD – Super Deformed – style of FFVII), behind its at first glance Manichean scenario, the game sets out to embody the culmination of a reflection on the meaning of life through all its contradictions. With a legacy built on a multitude of varied episodes, the game offers a resounding swan song to the trilogy released on Sony’s first console (the thematic swan song only appearing at the conclusion of the tenth opus, before Square Enix’s series explores new horizons, veiled by the theme of destiny).

The first screen of the game.
The first screen of the game.

Telling the tumultuous and complex story of Final Fantasy IX required the implementation of an impeccable narrative structure, served by a constant balancing act between freedom and compartmentalization, between world development (the status quo is constantly being overturned throughout the four original discs) and character development. Square sets out to demonstrate this meticulousness even before players are offered the chance to select a “new game”, as an introductory video plays and the legendary Squaresoft logo appears on screen (then the name of the studio that developed Final Fantasy before it merged with Enix to create the current entity).

This idea of pre-credits already existed in previous games, FFVII using it to highlight the creators and development team behind the game, while its successor took advantage of it to focus on the main characters of the adventure about to begin. FFIX, for its part, emphasizes both its universe, through various representations of nature itself, the different continents and emblematic locations that players will explore, and also introduces the main members of the team of playable characters, each associated with a short phrase summarizing a concept associated with them, or even a questioning or philosophy of life. With this introductory video, Squaresoft reveals the particular attention paid to the world the studio has passionately shaped, with these fragments of Hera also playing the role of a sort of “trailer” for the epic that is about to emerge, an epic whose essential purpose remains the link between the universe and the beings that populate it.

There’s no room for doubt: life, in all its forms, will be at the heart of the game’s reflections, as well as all the questions that revolve around this subject. And this interpretation is not contradicted by the title of the enchanting melody that accompanies the images broadcast, since it is entitled “The place I’ll return someday”, a self-explanatory prophetic expression. A few moments later, the introductory video comes to an end, and it’s time to select the long-awaited words: New Game.

The start of an adventure.
The start of an adventure.

Every story has to start somewhere. Final Fantasy IX‘s story begins with one of the magnificent cinematic sequences for which the studio is renowned. As a storm rages across an ocean disfigured by swells, the camera focuses on the tumultuous crossing of a frail boat. On board are two female figures. A sudden transition ejects the viewer from this sinister tableau, then reveals a new, much more serene frame. Here we find ourselves at the side of what appears to be a princess, seated between the walls of an immense, luxurious bedroom, itself caressed by the few soothing rays of light that come through an opening to warm the room. The following shots, illustrated by the camera’s flight, reveal in turn an immense fairytale castle, then a medieval-inspired town, suspended on the edge of a cliff. Suddenly, a flying ship cleaves the skies, gliding over a sea of mist, whose calmness creates a striking contrast with the furious ocean seen earlier.

A few seconds later, we’re invited into the ship’s corridors and, as we make our way along a gloomy corridor, we meet a young man seen from the back, which ends in a slender monkey tail. The character passes through a doorway, immediately followed by this inquisitive camera, before finally revealing the game’s very first playable screen. Well, reveal is a strong word, given that the screen in question is plunged into total darkness. Players take control of the mysterious individual, apparently a young man, while the only possible action is to move through this screen of darkness.

This passage is the ideal opportunity to discover the basic controls associated with movement, without any pressure. Indeed, as the surrounding darkness leaves no point of interest to focus on other than the protagonist himself, players are forced to move around in order to figure out how to progress. In this founding moment of the adventure, which at first glance seems trivial, it’s worth emphasizing that, for a few seconds, there’s nothing between those holding the controller and the character. The latter is merely an anonymous shell (for the time being), an avatar into which players project themselves. The world has none of these drawn contours. Right now, anything is possible. The story to come is, for the moment, just a blank page. Or black, given the situation.

Life is a play.
Life is a play.

Nevertheless, this introductory sequence consists of a very specific action: reviving the light. In so doing, we witness the symbol of the birth of this universe. Shapes take shape, just as the actors in the play about to be performed burst into the narrative. These few seconds create a link between players and their avatar, who finally gains a concrete existence, thanks to the mention of his name: Djidane. When the character can be controlled, it’s possible to either walk straight ahead to a table on which a candlestick rests, turning on the light and thus illuminating the room (to move the story forward), or to rummage around in the darkest corner, unearthing a handful of objects or even some currency. Once the lights are switched on, it’s no longer possible to obtain these benefits. The game already offers a few little secrets to reward explorers, or simply those who prefer to get off the beaten track (represented here by the straight line between Djidane and the lantern). By lighting the few candles scattered on the table in the middle of the room, the rest of the scenario is triggered, as the darkness disperses to make way for what appears to be a storeroom.

Djidane’s companions, alerted by the sudden illumination, burst into the room, only to be met by another burly individual from the other end of the room. Not a small detail: he’s wearing a huge blue dragon head. The adventure’s very first joust is underway (a reference to FFVII, where the first fight took place on the very first screen of the game, after you’d taken a few steps and learned to master your character’s movements). The team of allies controlled by the player includes Djidane, of course, but also his friends Cinna, Frank and Markus. The combat system, devoid of any tutorial (apart from the one in the physical booklet included in the game box at the time), is based on the traditional turn-based ATB (Active Time Battle) system: each character has his or her own gauge which fills up automatically over time and, once full, allows the player to select a universal action (such as attacking or using an item) or one specific to the character (stealing an item, casting a spell, etc.).

During this crucial battle, FFIX exploits this gameplay to develop its narrative. Indeed, in addition to using a classic action, team members are able to perform the “steal” action, in order to rob their opponent. As all team characters have access to this ability, the gang’s activity is clearly defined: we’re dealing here with a band of crooks. The opponent himself, behind his menacing appearance, isn’t actually all that dangerous, given that several of his assaults see him fall flat on his face, as if the whole thing were a masquerade. Funnily enough, this idea of animating a failed enemy attack is still relevant today, as we can see in a game like Like a Dragon (RGG Studios, 2020). In this other turn-based role-playing game, it’s common to encounter enemies fighting with a huge hammer: some of their attacks are doomed to failure, as these opponents are sometimes dragged down by the weight of their weapon and fall backwards. Returning to the fight at hand, the blue dragon is, of course, an unsubtle masquerade, and turns out to be Bach, the leader of the band of thieves. The Tantalas, as they’re called, use their plays to fleece the rich. In this respect, FFIX takes the form of a huge play, exploiting and then pulverizing its most elementary codes, in order to tell a story that breaks away from the human scale of the characters and embraces a theme that is both universal and strongly linked to the medium itself.

These few minutes of gameplay, acting as a prologue, already teach players several lessons, as they are invited to invest themselves in the world that opens up to them, while constantly being wary of appearances. Djidane appears to be human, but what about that monkey tail? Could this dragon-headed adversary, who keeps attacking, really just be a gruff ally? And what’s worse, we had to explore a darkened room to unearth its secrets, rather than search it once the light was on? This theme of appearances ties in with the etymology of Bach’s original Japanese name, which in the Land of the Rising Sun is Baku. Japanese legends evoke this famous baku, a world taken from Chinese folklore, known to feed on the dreams and nightmares of its victims. However, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the creature found itself associated with a protective role, and it was not uncommon for children to fall asleep not far from a talisman bearing the effigy of the baku.

Bach’s role in FFIX reflects this desire to protect, as the Tantala chief is determined to take care of his people, just as it is revealed later in the adventure that he takes care of the orphans he meets (he himself being a war orphan). Baku can also refer to the tapir, an animal that Asian peoples associate with good fortune. And Bach will need all his luck to carry out his next plan, one of the most audacious ever: to kidnap the princess of the kingdom of Alexandria. What the Tantalas don’t know is that the princess herself, Garnet di Alexandros XVII, is desperate to escape the family castle, which she sees only as a prison, in order to get as far away as possible from her mother, Queen Branet. As Bach explains his plan to the troupe, the theatrical vessel Prima Vista draws ever closer to the capital, the starting point for the events to come. Yes, the Tantalas are sailing on a sea of mist, as if the whole world were their gigantic stage. A stage they walk as actors, when in reality they are cunning little thieves with overweening ambitions. Once again, the play on appearances is fascinatingly masterful, a fitting theme when it comes to masks and theater.

And there’s plenty of theater to be found throughout the game, as the names of Djidane’s companions already demonstrate. There’s Cinna, who takes his name from a play by Corneille, but also from a character in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as does Markus (Marcus in the original version). In the playwright’s work, Marcus and Cinna plot to bring down the emperor, just as the thieves’ journey in FFIX will lead them to unseat Queen Branet from her throne. The case of Frank, the third companion, is a little different, however. When the script was first drafted, the rogue’s name was not Frank, but Blank, as if the character were a blank sheet of paper, the very embodiment of the imagination that fuels stories. It’s possible to detect echoes of this initial idea in the thief’s final appearance, preserved in the game, his body patched up, stitched together, with no real identity, which is most evident through his official artwork and close-ups.

Frank.
Frank.

In case it’s not yet obvious to the public, the entire first act of the game revolves around a play performed by the characters, during which reality and fiction collide, in a ballet that pays homage to the genres of comedy and tragedy. The three unities of time, place and action are first respected, then dismantled, while the script takes advantage of a diversification of points of view (it will be possible to control Djidane, Vivi or even Steiner) by bringing an almost omniscient viewpoint to the story. Following this first act, references to theater are legion, sometimes comical and anodyne, as in the staged wedding between Vivi and Kweena much later on, other times far more solemn, as in the attitude of the main antagonist, Kuja, who sees the world as a huge stage subject to his whims and machinations. And let’s not forget the emphasis placed on the characters’ torments or, finally, the incredible finale, once again blending fiction and reality, in which Djidane and Garnet meet again during a performance. And let’s dare to push the envelope to the very last frame of the game, revealing the collision of the worlds of Hera and Terra, as if fiction and reality were combining to form an unalterable whole, fueling stories essential to our reflections, our escape and our emotions.

Before coming to this conclusion, let’s turn things upside down and take a quick look at the introduction through this new prism of reflection. The game’s first screen actually evokes a marked parallel between reality and theatrical simulacrum. Look at this darkened room, lit only by the presence of the candle held by Djidane. When the players take control of the man with the monkey tail, he enters the picture from below, so the camera is positioned behind his back, slightly above the ground. The audience and Djidane face the same direction, their gaze directed towards the top of the room, as if they were entering the stage together. The room represents the stage, while the doors on the sides lead backstage. At the back, in what appears to be a shed, you’ll find the objects mentioned earlier, which will help the play to run smoothly as written by Squaresoft. Firstly, a potion to heal the characters in the event of injury, plus a few gils, the game’s currency, ready to be squandered at the various shops and stalls.

Admittedly, the comparison you’re about to read is a bit far-fetched, but I can’t help but see in these two types of items (items to be used and gils) reminiscences of items necessary for the smooth running of the play that’s about to take place, namely props (which we can extend to equipment, weapons and armor) as well as the funds essential to maintaining a performance’s budget. Hidden in the shadows, they are nonetheless essential to the smooth running of the show.

This first screen embodies one of the few times when the camera will place the audience’s vision on the same level as Djidane’s, as most of the game exploits a variety of camera angles, serving to energize the staging, establish compositions highlighting various elements or panoramas, or simply create the affordance necessary for the adventure to unfold smoothly. Here, players enter the world of FFIX on the same level as the hero, and both face the coming events together, bound by an unspoken pact, like spectators joining the actors in the theater. In this sequence, the first opponent emerges from the door on the left, then, once the duel is over, the whole team enters the storeroom on the right, as if to signify that the group will move forward together towards what’s to come (the right being associated with the idea of progression in video games, the most blatant example being found in platform games). In this way, everyone is in the same boat, and everyone – fictional characters and players alike – will face the coming ordeal together: the adventure of life itself.

A theatrical duel between Djidane and Frank.
A theatrical duel between Djidane and Frank.

Various questions will haunt the characters’ thoughts and punctuate their evolution, torments that will give rise to entire sections of the game design and storyline bursts distilled throughout the game. This reflection extends right down to the gameplay and the character progression system, through, for example, the abilities contained in the equipment (which symbolize the way we define ourselves in relation to our learning and the things we value, as well as our experience, development and mastery), but also the relationships we forge over time (Vivi and Steiner), the difficulty of finding a goal, an identity, and so on.

Without going that far, and to return to this incredible first game screen, it already reveals a wealth of information about the philosophy giving life to the project, all – and it’s essential to emphasize this – without ever shedding a narrative efficiency just as masterful as the rest, offering those who prefer to limit themselves to a single reading level immediate gameplay pleasure. The stakes are clearly introduced (kidnapping the princess), the universe and the rules that define it are immediately established (the medieval fantasy setting, the forces at play), not forgetting the appearance of a few mysteries to punctuate the adventure (the introductory sequence under the storm, Djidane’s monkey tail, the only character to have one).

FFIX will retain this narrative mastery over most of the four discs, thanks to the accumulated experience of the majority of the creative team at the helm of development, who here sign a work that has assimilated and digested years of work on the saga. From birth to mourning, from death to learning, from joy to sadness, our doubts, dreams, hopes and illusions will feed the journey of protagonists as fascinating as they are varied, who turn out to embody the different facets of the human soul, until they all join forces against what is nothing less than the greatest conceptual adversary ever encountered in the saga, an entity that defies the limits of the medium, even if this paper is unfortunately not the place to talk about it. Before reaching this climax, sometimes misunderstood by a certain fringe of gamers, this story has to start somewhere. Ours opens in a room engulfed in darkness, as a troupe of thieving actors prepares to kidnap the daughter of one of the most influential monarchs in the known world.

Let the show begin !

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