The following post is from Ross, our newest contributor. Yay Ross! Thanks for contributing!
Oh, to be ten again, sliding that first black-bottomed disc into the tray and staring agape at the vast, panning shots of sky kingdoms and wild lands, all overlayed with a sepia map in scrawled letters. This wasn’t the world of Midgar or Balamb, this was Final Fantasy IX. For the first time on the Playstation, Final Fantasy actually felt like fantasy. Now, why should that matter, you might ask (if you like asking boring questions). Gladius or gunblade, black mage or medic, what’s the diff? Well, we don’t need to know how swords and spells work in order to believe in them, we don’t need a schematic or manual attached to every item in the weapon store. We just accept them. In the long tradition of theatre, Final Fantasy IX asks us to take its props and scenery on faith so that it can spend time convincing us the characters are real. And that’s a task I envy less than fighting Ozma with a Butterfly Sword. With characters like the androgynous swamp chef Quina and the knight sporting enough eye liner to shame Johnny Depp, the game has no interest in identifying with the player superficially. No, like old Will Shakespeare, Final Fantasy IX makes us understand its characters by adopting their perspectives and suffering their hardships as we do our own.
The game opens (more or less) on a stage, with our would-be hero Zidane and his theatre troupe pulling off their daring princess caper by way of a ham-fisted performance. Now, maybe their play doesn’t “catch the conscience of the king,” but it gets the job done, and it sets the game’s tone immediately. From the very first curtain raised to the final on-stage reunion between Zidane and Garnet,Final Fantasy IX is marked all over with the trappings of theatre. Our world is Elizabethan and then some, with flourishing merchant districts, regal fanfares, and mannerisms that polite company dictates I call “courtly.” Magic rules this world, but like Shakespeare’s Prospero, we catch glimpses of a modern future in the airships of Alexandria and in our dear Vivi, a mage by desire, but machine by design. And like the Elizabethan custom of men playing women or the Bard’s further fondness for cross-dressing plots, Final Fantasy IX changes wardrobes faster than Superman. Regent Cid takes an early turn as a frog, Princess Garnet trades in her precious name for a more jagged title as the runaway Dagger, Steiner and Freya join up as soldiers-cum-infidels, and even General Beatrix fights our heroes fiercely before joining them.
Alright, that’s a lot, I know, but there’s a reason the game earns more recognition than every other JRPG with a character list longer than its credit roll, and it’s the same reason Shakespeare’s characters survive so long after their creation.
Among the more curious talents of English literature’s golden child is his so-called “negative capability,” his quality of understanding perspectives different from his own and making them relatable (which is no small feat, as any victim of Metroid: Other M can attest). To write in such a way that the audience or players can sympathize with a character, even when they’re wrong, or ignorant, or downright silly is a rare skill, and it depends on subjectivity to be successful.Romeo and Juliet can swing from heartbreaking tragedy to cutting satire depending on how an actor reads his lines. And in this, Ian’s point on voice acting proves true: without audible dialogue, players can interpret words anyway they so choose. Shakespeare and Final Fantasy IX live not in their plots — which often trade in winding stories and stereotypes — but in their characters. Our heroes don’t fight an evil corporation or a corrupt religious order; the game’s greatest foe is Zidane’s genetic twin, essentially his own prototype. The struggles of Final Fintasy IX are timeless because they’re our own struggles, and we only realize this after playing each character, after becoming the Shakespeare of the TV screen. So don’t fret the next time you get weepy at the scene in Black Mage Village or find yourself thinking in Quina’s philosophy of “things you can eat and things you cannot eat.” It just means you’re playing the game right.