Final Fantasy IX’s Shakespeare
Upstaging Hiro’s heroes by Hiro
By July 1998, Hironobu Sakaguchi (let’s call him Hiro) had passed the writer’s burden to protégé Kazushige Nojima for a game series he had begun over a decade earlier called Final Fantasy, so-named because the original seven-man team thought the project might be their last. For those ten years, Hiro had been writing, scripting, and directing the creation of seven seminal Final Fantasy titles and a slew of other games (notably Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Xenogears) for Square, a Japanese game development studio, and he was now beginning to enter the “executive producer phase” of his career. That is, he was actually writing his final fantasy.
Only a decade later, Hiro would have to watch the credits fall on Final Fantasy XIII with his name nowhere to be found. All the way up to 2006, two years after Hiro would leave Square(-Enix), the series’ developers would continue to throw him some recognition in the form of a Special Thanks or Producer credit. The real moment of transition for Hiro’s career would come at the turn of the century when Square would release its last Final Fantasy for the original PlayStation. The game would also be the last Final Fantasy without voice acting, the last Final Fantasy on four discs, the last Final Fantasy with 3D characters on 2D backgrounds, and the last Final Fantasy that Hiro would receive credit for writing directly.
As he often did for games in production, Hiro called Final Fantasy IX his favorite in the series, saying “… it’s closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be.” When he began writing FFIX in 1998 at the studio’s new Hawaii office, Final Fantasy VIII was still in the works back in Japan. The two previous titles in the series, Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III in the States) and Final Fantasy VII, both written by Hiro, embraced futuristic or industrial designs instead of the series’ original medieval inspirations. Despite being his favorites during their production, it must have hit Hiro that, in the waning years of his time as a writer, FFVI and FFVII weren’t how he wanted to be remembered. These weren’t his original dream but some fashionable version of the pastoral landscapes and stony heaths he’d first envisioned. To this day, FFVI and FFVII are the second- and third-best reviewed Final Fantasy titles (averaging 92/100), according to Metacritic. Guess what’s first?
Four + Six + Seven = IX
If FFVI was a distinct departure from tradition (though my mom swears they’re all the same “magic game”), then Final Fantasy IV was as thematically close to the original vision as Hiro and team could make it on Super Nintendo hardware. FFVII, on a storyboard, is just a stone’s throw from FFIV, and of course the first rule of Final Fantasy Club is — say it with me — “We don’t talk about Final Fantasy V.”
FFIX grafts FFVI’s world geography, its villain (Kefka, or Joker-by-Kafka), and its Espers (magical summoned allies) into the medieval power struggle from FFIV, then coats it with 3D paint, pre-rendered cut scenes, and off-beat in-town missions and side-quests. The heart of it lies in FFIV, it seems, where a protagonist like Cecil (Zidane in FFIX) unknowingly fights to prevent the destruction of Earth (Gaia) at the hands of an ancient civilization from a moon (Terra), which it turns out is where he’s originally from (you betcha). Inside that narrative pita pocket simmers inter-kingdom royalty wars wrought with a tepid love affair and the journey of a ragtag band of do-gooders to rid The Land of flans, tonberries, chimera, and all manner of otherworldly dungeon beasts until the most deity-like of the beasts is defeated, somehow protecting a world forever.
If FFIX has started to sound like, oh I don’t know, Every Fantasy Game: The Game by the time we hit “destruction of Earth”, that’s because the interactive fantasy genre is like a Jenga pyramid. Oral tradition and folklore make up the base, then Tolkien is right above them, and the last hundred years of fantasy writing on top of that, losing pieces the higher they go, sometimes even from the foundation. The Final Fantasy pyramid, like the Zelda pyramid and the larger fantasy pyramid, has many of the same pieces in each game, mostly just rearranged or re-skinned.
In Christian Donlan’s retrospective of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the most progressive Zelda game of the last two decades, he sums up well the peculiar mandate of legacy and iteration in game development:
“Over the years, perhaps Zelda’s rituals have provided a reliable framework that offers just enough restrictions to force its designers to do something amazing each time around, so as to stop its endlessly repeating narrative from becoming stale. Zelda’s increasingly about giving old ideas a smart new twist, in other words, and the best games are therefore the ones with the best twists.”
As with The Wind Waker, the ritual building of the Final Fantasy pyramid implies certain gameplay elements, certain spells, a certain pacing between dungeons, overworlds, and towns. It’s the deviations from this formula that give a Final Fantasy game its unique character and the predictable partitions that connect it to the series, laying a familiar foundation for play in an unfamiliar context.
So I’m granting that, as a Final Fantasy game before Final Fantasy XI’s MMO mashup, FFIX consists of world exploration, text conversations, and randomized pop-out battles. And although the narrative plays a significant role in motivating the player, exploration and combat lean into a risk and reward system to better equip players for battle, which naturally translates into a phenomenon called “grinding”. By spending time fighting the same kinds of enemies in a field over and over, players can gain experience to improve their skills and money to purchase better weapons and armor. Pair “grinding” with the typically 30,000+ lines of mandatory dialogue and we’re staring down the barrel of a 30-hour experience, in human time.
And time matters! To appreciate its length, though, remember that FFIX was developed in a pre-Portal, pre-smartphone market where game reviews routinely lauded a game for just having MORE content. In fact, a review of FFIV said that its 25-30 hour length is “quite short compared to more modern games”. FFIX clocked in right where series’ fans would expect it to; FFVIII generally played around 35 hours, and my most recent run in FFIX took 32 hours and 35 minutes without much sidetracking.
Going into a discussion about FFIX, it’s worthwhile to understand that the Final Fantasy formula to which it adheres creates some real barriers to entry. This interactive narrative requires serious commitment, and that commitment belies, in most cases, a willingness to engage with elements that might elsewhere be readily dismissed. For example, an in-game card battling system, complete with its own set of rules and 100 collectible cards, becomes mandatory during one visit to the nighttime city, Treno. A multi-continent hunt for four elemental mirrors requires players to have internalized knowledge about Gaia to deduce the hidden locations. The benefit of grinding is in itself a love letter to the game. And what player’s resolve isn’t tested by the mystifying time spent on any dialogue from party-character and gourmand Quina Quen?
Hiro might have guessed that FFIX would disinterest the same audiences the series always had, and that he’d be writing his farewell bow for the same gamers that supported his career to this point. He must have hoped to honor that tradition more than anything, and to tell the story that he’d been trying to tell since 1987.
The pieces were set, but separated across games, creating two distinct visions for the Final Fantasy universe. It wouldn’t be until Hiro let go of the series’ next two installments that he would discover that the stories he’d been cultivating and the worlds he’d been building were elastic and interwoven; they had enough in common to support the grandeur and scope he’d originally imagined as the future of fantasy role playing.
Act 1 – Release the Hounds
By the time FFVII had released in 1997, Hiro and his mustache had cemented his role as the father of the JRPG. He’d designed and released Chrono Trigger in 1995, then had overseen the production of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars in 1996, and as of 1997, had ushered JRPGs into the 3D era on a brand new console, the PlayStation, on a brand new media, compact discs, to raucous critical applause. Coming down the pipeline in the next two years (before Y2K would destroy all of our computers and, subsequently, our computers games), Hiro was playing the part of producer for a handful of new projects like Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears, Bushido Blade, Parasite Eve, and, of course, the high school drama that was FFVIII.
And by the time that Hiro had settled with FFVIII, leaving the details to FFVII’s writer and director, Yoshinori Kitase, he started planning FFIX. As early as July 1998, Hiro met with teams in the Japan and Hawaii studios and began writing scenario, or the script, for FFIX, something he’d not done personally since the early days of FFVII.
What’s astonishing is how directly Hiro’s work from that summer translated to the finished product. In his notes from those planning stages, Hiro carefully outlined the en medias res introductory scenes in FFIX, taking care to describe the personalities of the characters, and even trot out some dialogue for a fuller picture.
It’s clear that Hiro was charting a noticeably different course than what he’d seen in FFVII and FFVIII. Although he must have known that Zidane, the bold, roguish master thief, would be his main character, he imagined that players would also take the role of a timid mage child and a clumsy, over-zealous knight within the opening scenes. This was the first of many decisions that would echo the game’s framing device, a play, by introducing panoply of perspectives as protagonists, and staging early the possibilities for romance between not only the leading lady and a poor, gallant lad, but the lovable cohorts as well. FFIX would even open and close with separate attempts at the same play called “I Want to Be Your Canary”. Hiro must have been reading some Shakespeare.
Regardless of its Leary, romantic inspiration, Hiro knew that the introduction needed mystery to keep the following acts as taught with character tension. There’s the Romance, as we’d expect, between Garnet the princess and Zidane the lowlife with a tail, opening in Hiro’s first draft with, I kid you not, “[A] close up of her breasts. View of her breasts inside the clothes (a little). Also a view of her pendant of royalty….” followed shortly by a thief’s remark, “Her breasts look comfortable.”
Thankfully, the breast bit was left back in editing, but what remained was the cheek and charm that would shape the game’s playful vitality, eventually reinforced by an equally playful and evocative score from series’ composer Nobuo Uematsu. There’s plenty more of this… let’s call it tomfoolery in Hiro’s original opening script including the oglop mishap, Steiner’s typical buffoonery, and the butchered play-turned-airship-escape. It straddles the line between shtick and prose well for the majority of the game, often relying on incredulous characters in outlandish scenarios to create tension-cutting comedy.
The introductory mélange of bungled theater and daring-do boldly chart a course for the player characters into escalating parallel tracks of character and plot development (Imagine that!), weaving each character’s journey of self-discovery into the narrative of an international war and the magical weapons that fuel it. The nation-states take on distinct personalities to this end and none more ambitiously than Lindblum, the clearest example of Hiro’s vision for a buoyant, bustling Final Fantasy city.
The prosperous regency of Lindblum rises into view through what used to be called a “CG cutscene” that, for its time, was a visually remarkable feat, especially given that FFIX released for PlayStation just months after the launch of the PlayStation 2. Before Lindblum, the farming town of Dali was the player’s first opportunity to explore a non-combat area as multiple characters. Players receive their omniscient glimpse mainly through Active Time Events, a device akin to a theatrical aside that gives the player, but not the player characters, supernatural insight into any event Hiro deemed worthwhile.
Lindblum’s panoramic stage captures a city separated into three districts and a castle, opening opportunities for more Active Time Events and mini-games, like Tetra Master, the collectible card battling game. Eventually, the story brings the city to bear on the game’s main artifice with the Festival of the Hunt, and then shutters three of the party members to the rat-person kingdom of Burmecia where it rains and Kuja, the villain, shows up to end the first disc.
Like so many other Final Fantasy games, the introductory stages represent and encapsulate the loss of ignorance, both for the player characters and the player. As Princess Garnet learns to lose her noble speech patterns, even adopting the thief name “Dagger”, Vivi the mage-child discovers that he may be a terminator, and Zidane realizes he’s just a big softie. The noble knight, Steiner, seems to be the only ideologue, but even he eventually grows.
It’s as if each character holds some piece of the Final Fantasy series in themselves, some consciousness that Hiro once conceived and brought to life, which he’s now choosing to double back on, and in time reject. Hiro’s heroes are, archetypically, anti-heroes who grow into their roles, often revealed by wistful monologue or revealed by manifest interwoven motives.
HEY, Shakespeare, get out of here! Scram!
Act 2 – Divide and Eidolon
Hiro begins the second act, the crescendo of his culminating work in the Final Fantasy series, with two guards bantering. And why shouldn’t he? If it was good enough for Hamlet, it’s good enough for Final Fantasy, right?
It’s really a masterful stroke. After the somber, helpless ending, a required loss for the player in Burmecia, Hiro restarts the charm engine with some idle banter about Gysahl pickles (which becomes useful game knowledge later) and a quick recap of what’s happened on a macroscopic level. It simultaneously places the player’s actions in the context of a living world and moves time forward to avoid stagnation. The diverging plotlines and fast-forwarded events buoy a story on the verge of collapsing into its own furrowed brow.
This short segment, which features no combat, does more heavy narrative lifting than several hours of random encounters, although combat has its own emergent narrative to tell. Once the party is reunited with some familiar thieves and launched into a boss battle, the tone realigns and the player jumps back into “game mode”, concerned again with things like Inventory and Weapons and Save Data.
Even then, Hiro does his best to make saving the game a colorful sub-story complete with gamification and cuteness. In FFIX, the glowing save orbs are replaced by moogles, which as the name implies are impossibly adorable and unfailingly British in their mannerisms. While players need to talk to moogles to save the game, the moogles aren’t always static in the environment, and will often give the player letters to deliver to other moogles, which can chain into item rewards. There’s even a nomad moogle in leopard print that sells items by the bundle and hearkens back to Bilbo’s intrepid innocence from The Hobbit.
As the characters reunite in the Swiss-family tree village of Cleyra, the combat difficulty starts its gradual incline, mainly by introducing healthy enemies that affect status effects like confuse and slow that players have to adjust their equipment sets to counteract. Discerning equipment management becomes vital at this point.
From a design perspective, the decision to associate abilities with weapons and classes would have been a major change from, say, FFVII’s materia system, but from the player’s perspective not much has changed. All statistic and ability upgrades are still tied closely with the rewards from battle, which include gil (money), ability points, and experience.
That careful balance prioritizes authorial intent. If it weren’t important to Hiro that the story moves swiftly, with an intentional pacing and rhythm, then the player might be in the driver’s seat more readily. As it is, players who travel from story event to story event are funneled into enough battles that grinding never seems mandatory, a seed change dating back to FFVI and cemented in FFVII. Participating in a story (which can’t be won or lost) suddenly became more important than playing a game (which players can win or lose).
I imagine that as Hiro saw the coming tide of what became FFXI, or online RPGs, he feared that FFIX might be the last great single-player epic. It makes sense, then, that he designed to first preserve those elements that make offline single-player content sacred. Of course, FFIX was still every bit as daunting to a non-gamer as any other Final Fantasy had been. For fans, the tonal shift is clear stepping stone from one game to the next. FFIX is a narrative stallion running downhill in a deep snow, and the bottom is that much clearer for its speed and accidental grace.
When the set piece moment arrives, the effect is chilling. “Set piece” has become something of dirty term in the game criticism community, though it remains as revered as ever among game developers, it seems. In 2000, there weren’t set pieces, just pre-rendered cutscenes. As in-engine graphics continued to march towards rounded edges, Square’s in-house cutscene team sprinted towards photorealism.
Hiro, ever the writer, forsake utter realism and demanded that the characters fit the story. Queen Brahne’s comically oversized frame looks splendid and otherworldly, her green cheeks glinting in the sun. The exaggerated anime influence is even more apparent in the cutscenes, like when the tree city of Cleyra explodes. A civilization melts in a Dragonball Z-style fire cloud.
The resultant, off-screen genocide isn’t a first for the series; FFIV, for example, opens with an unwitting massacre at the Village of the Mist. That doesn’t take away Cleyra’s narrative gravity. It’s analogous to the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars: A New Hope. Now we know this decimating power exists, and it casts a shadow over every event thereafter.
Not long after, the party gets thrown back into the wild, this time into an awkward lull in the action precipitated by Ramuh, an eidolon (summoned spirit) and resident floating sage. What’s most peculiar about this segment is the abstract, poetic nature of the five story fragments that Garnet has to find to receive Ramuh as her first usable eidolon.
In summary, Ramuh tells the story of a villager who gives his life for a cause, only to have the cause feel too guilty for his death to repeat his story to his daughter. It takes on the “hero that Gotham needs” vibe briefly, which never plays out in the rest of the game. The manifestations at Pinnacle Rock, where this sub-narrative occurs, descend into imagined self-importance and unnecessary exposition, a rarity in FFIX. It’s relieved by the opening of a new environment, the arid Outer Continent.
In addition to being home to Conde Petie and an all-important plot device, the Iifa Tree, the Outer Continent hosts the Black Mage Village, the site of IX’s toughest philosophical throwdowns. Up to this point, Vivi (you remember, the faceless mage-child) has struggled to find his purpose as a reanimated doll, hemming and hawing over his relative worthlessness. When he finds similar-looking black mages in similar existential throes, he believes he’s found his fatherland.
He discovers that these black mages are like children, or the first humans, who have just discovered death, and are learning to value their lives in light of that new knowledge. The spiel ends with a dismissive, “Traveling with your friends gives your life meaning,” and then the party is back on the villain’s trail. In the process, though, Vivi asks some important questions. Most notably, he asks why any of them are built to die in the first place, which is answered, in typical JRPG fashion, with ellipses. “That’s because…”
The real application of the question can be a stunning one, depending on your beliefs. Why does death exist? Is it a punishment, or a corruption, or just the way things are? For Hiro’s evolving anti-heroes, the answer reveals a bit about his belief. FFIX seems convinced that neither end or beginning, birth or death, should determine how man (or humanoid) sets his moral compass, but he should be guided by the people and experiences of the present.
The argument there is reductive at best, but draws parallels with serial game development, which may have been Hiro’s original intention. Hiro is quoted as saying that FFIX was an amalgam of all the Final Fantasy games he wanted to make, but not the end of the series by any means. The main Final Fantasy series has, at the time of this article’s writing, announced its fifteenth installment, which doesn’t count spin-offs. The longevity of the series rests on many laurels, but I think Hiro is arguing here that staying power just requires a different focus.
Ironically, it all started when his small development team believed that they’d written their introductory eulogy for Final Fantasy, and has since blossomed in spite of those humble origins. The real power, to hear Hiro tell it, lies in communicating a compelling, relatable story. It’s something insular and complete, with a beginning and an end (the most-beloved Final Fantasies aren’t trilogies), and each new entry pulls from the previous ones to tell the story even more effectively. Storytelling is an additive art.
Act 3 – Thrice More Unto the Breach!
Horror works when it takes some power away from the participant, whether it’s purely imagined or real. Power fantasies like JRPGs function on the opposite principle. It turns out that the effects of both are heightened when tempered with some elements from the other.
From a storytelling perspective, Hiro’s choice to press forward the narrative by once again diminishing the player’s capacities makes sense. At the end of the second disc, the villain Kuja uses an alien ship’s magic eyeball (I mean, it’s still Final Fantasy) to possess the eidolon Bahamut and kill Queen Brahne, sending Garnet into queenship and the Death Star back to Star Destroyer status. Seriously, the bad guys have ANOTHER ultimate weapon more potent than what the player’s been fighting for half the game? Death Star II?
Thankfully, the respite at the beginning of the third disc grounds the characters as they return to Alexandria, each in some disquieting lull. Garnet reluctantly does queen stuff, Steiner does knight stuff, and after the previous 18 hours of adventuring with royalty, Zidane returns to his proletariat life to mope about not being noble and thus separated from his high-born affection. I can’t help but sense a logical disconnect between destroying the source of all monsters and being thwarted by classism, but he doesn’t stay down for long anyway.
The disc three lull also hosts my favorite referential segment of FFIX, a concept pulled straight from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Note that this segment is intentionally confounding in its intricacy.
Eiko (you remember, the summoner girl from the Outer Continent) employs owl-eyed Doctor Tot to write a love letter to Zidane for her, which she drops in the castle, only to be recovered by Tantalus troubadour Baku. He also drops the letter, which is picked up by one-eyed knight-lady Beatrix who mistakes the love letter as a profession from Steiner. Eventually, the other thieves find the letter, drop it AGAIN, and Steiner picks it up, only to be confronted directly by Beatrix while the thieves and Eiko watch in hiding.
Oh the comedy of errors! Calloo, callay!
Without diving into a diatribe about the history of comedy, it’s a pleasure to see modern storytellers reappropriate silly Shakespearean tricks, and even more so at a moment of such dire solemnity in this story. Of course, if the classism problem was too much of a logical leap, then the letter hijinx are several bridges too far, but the comic intent is at least clear.
A few narrative hops later, and the city of Alexandria is also destroyed, making it the (count ‘em) fourth major city to get leveled in FFIX. Garnet has lost her voice because the princess is in another castle, so the remaining squad tracks down Kuja while she thinks about getting her groove back.
The Kuja hunt denotes one of those all-important Final Fantasy moments: getting a vehicle. It’s just a boat, but the freedom allows players to sail to any of the four continents now at whim. That doesn’t mean that the four continents are all traversable, since monsters on some are still too strong for most players at this point. What’s significant is the implication of freedom, which the Final Fantasy series pioneered all the way back in 1987. As it turns out, the “open world” traversal is really just a wider hallway for a terrain-locked vessel, but oh look it has cupholders!
Upon finding Kuja, losing Kuja, and returning to Lindblum, the party loses Garnet, only for Zidane to find her back in Alexandria, voice restored and sporting a shorter haircut. The conversation at her mother’s grave signals a pivotal change for Garnet’s motivation, which manifests for the player as command of an airship. Gaining a boat brought with it a sense of false freedom, and piloting an airship has a similar effect. While it opens up the optional road to Daguerro, the secret library (imagine hiding a library!) and a few other side quests, the singular narrative purpose remains the foremost of a handful of options.
Final Fantasy games are known for this kind of progression from fewer to more traversal options, and almost every instance of it (save Final Fantasy X and XII) has the opposite of its intended effect. Opening up the entire world map for exploration produces a tunnel vision for end results. Side missions become a means to an experience bonus. The main quests become a means to get to the next cutscene. Ennui ensues.
If world maps were to reveal several new, lively cities to explore and cultures to absorb, then I’d be way off-base. However, in JRPG practice, interest grows up around mandatory plot environments and FFIX follows that unfortunate trend to it melodramatic ending.
The party goes to a castle, that takes them to four mini castles, that takes them to a moon, that takes them to castle Pandemonium (a Final Fantasy II reference), that takes them back to Gaia, that takes them into an alternate dimension where Kuja has multiple forms and they fight a version of God and win. This is the obvious low-point in FFIX, rendered meaningful only by the question of Zidane’s identity and purpose, both of which are poorly explained and wouldn’t matter anyway.
These are not the interests Hiro cultivates so carefully and with such reveling for the previous three discs. You made me care about these characters, Hiro! Capitalize on it!
The last five hours of FFIX hold like an anticipating gulp of air, only to lead to a fight I don’t understand and a victory I never wanted. I wanted Zidane and Garnet to end up together (spoiler alert: they do, in a post-game cinematic). I wanted Steiner and Beatrix to end up together (spoiler alert: them too). I wanted Vivi to find his courage and for the scarecrow to find a brain and for Tantalus to get back together and ruin more theatrical adaptations (spoiler alert: happy endings!). And I wanted all of that because that’s what the game was about until I got an airship.
I don’t blame the airship. If FFIX was supposed to be the perfect mixture of the best components of every Final Fantasy that came before, then it ended exactly how it should have. It’s the legacy of Final Fantasy games to suddenly explode into extra-dimensional importance after thirty-or-so hours, and to culminate with a ‘roided-up deity in a battle that somehow doesn’t destroy the universe in an attempt to save it. FFVI probably comes the closest to not overreaching in its final hours, but even then Kefka’s second form is modeled directly after Renaissance depictions of Christ and the Madonna. What hope did FFIX’s last moments ever really have? How else can a power fantasy logically end?
A year after FFIX’s release, Hiro and Square released the feature film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which only recouped $50 million of its $137 million budget. This loss would eventually lead Square to merge with long-time rival and evil-sounding company, the Enix Corporation. During the merge, Hiro left Square to start his own development studio, Mistwalker, which has developed Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, and The Last Story, among other JRPG titles.
In an interview in 2012, Hiro made these remarks of The Last Story that sound curiously reminiscent of another game from just a decade earlier:
“I think you can make a fun game using just traditional RPG elements. We have both period dramas and modern day dramas, and in the same way I think there are lots of different ways a game can be fun. The way the adventure unfolds — lots of exciting little self-contained chapters — reminds us of older mythology.”