(Note: I am going to spoil a fifteen year old game)
Final Fantasy IX is the most Chestertonian RPG game. That, I think, puts its finger on why I find this game to be so compelling as an adult. I feel that, having lived to see them, the corpulent man of letters would have dismissed electronic RPGs in favor of their pen and paper origins; but short of uncovering the manuscript of a high fantasy novel penned by the man, this is about as close as we’ll get to a G. K. Chesterton RPG.
But I’ll return to that point in a bit. IX is also compelling for the more simple and laudable fact of it being a game of superior craftsmanship. It is true that there are a couple of ideas that are poorly implemented, but this is overall a stellar example of the JRPG genre.
The Playstation era Final Fantasies follow an unusual trajectory. For good or ill, VII provided the template that most JRPGs hence would follow. VIII then proceeded to completely ignore its predecessor’s template, while IX deliberately hearkened back to a pre-VII, indeed, even pre-VI JRPG paradigm.
Gone are the steampunk, cyberpunk and pseudo-modern stylings of recent entries: medieval European flavored fantasy makes a big comeback here. Gone are the skill systems that reduce the playable characters to interchangeable ciphers: IX returns (in modified form) to the idea of distinct character classes.
Some changes are less of a return and more of an unusual diversion: while Final Fantasy (and most games in general) had been pushing towards increasing realism in its art-style, IX deliberately chooses an exaggerated, cartoony aesthetic. The game looks more Disney than anime. More Harry Potter than LOTR.
The story goes like this: in the fantasy world of Gaia, the kingdom of Alexandria has been making the kind of military overtures which suggest that things are about to get unpleasant. The reigning queen has become strange and menacing in her ways. The regent of the neighbouring nation of Lindblum decides to have the Alexandrian princess taken to him in order to protect her from the queen. To do so, he hires Tantalus, a traveling cabal of thieves/classically trained actors, to kidnap her. Included in this group is Zidane, the teenaged protagonist of the game. The plan is to snatch her up while putting on a performance of, “I Want To Be Your Canary.”
The kidnapping plot covers the first hour of the game. And you can see some Chestertonian characteristics right at the outset. Chesterton, to both the delight and chagrin of many readers, liked to rely on paradox and inversion as both a plot and rhetorical device. He comes across as fascinated by the divide between appearances and reality, and how people come to reason out the truth (which is perhaps why he wrote so many murder mysteries).
While it would merely be subversive to have the hero be a rogue who kidnaps the princess instead of rescuing her, it is Chestertonian when it turns out that the aim of the kidnappers is to rescue the princess after all. Having a guild of thieves would be standard fantasy – but having a group of actor-thieves, such that there is some doubt as to which identity is primary, is Chestertonian.
There is also something to be said about the tone of the game. Most people remember IX as one of the most lighthearted and charming entries in the series. But the story is actually quite dark, melancholy and reflective. Similarly, the seriousness of Chesterton is often cloaked by his bouncy, vivacious style, his sense of humor, and the absurd situations he throws his protagonists into – until the absurdity becomes more nightmarishly surreal.
I’ll return to this train of thought in a bit; for now I’d like to introduce the characters.
I’m already a decade older than this kid – and I’m not old at all. In contrast to the angsty/stoic protagonists of the previous two entries, Zidane is a chirpy guy who fancies himself a ladies’ man. It later turns out that he’s actually an alien created for the purpose of wiping out/assimilating all life on Gaia who happened to get misplaced when he was young. One of the villains also tries to rip his soul out immediately after this revelation, which is kind of a rough deal, but he gets over it pretty quickly. I like his can-do attitude.
Unlike most plucky princess characters, Garnet actually has a good reason to get the heck out of her castle and go incognito. Although a bit on the naive side, she remains one of the more level-headed and resourceful characters. She finds the responsibilities that have been thrust on her to be hard, but still sees them as her responsibilities, which is refreshing. Then at one point she becomes so stressed out that her actions in combat start to randomly fail, temporarily making her the most loathsome character in the party. She gets better.
Much like Zidane, she also has a secret origin story: she’s actually one of two survivors of an ancient clan of summoners who was orphaned at age six. The real princess Garnet (whom she closely resembles) having mysteriously died, the royal family decides to adopt her.
Also also: eventually falls in love with Zidane. Unlike VIII, which was marketed as a love story, their relationship actually grows in an organic manner and makes sense. Their back and forth throughout the game is pretty amusing.
A kid who secretly sneak in to see Tantalus performing and winds up getting accidentally kidnapped by them too. It turns out that he’s actually an artificial golem created to be a war machine and with a lifespan of about a year. He’s dead by the time the epilogue rolls. This is kind of a rough deal, but makes him arguably the most poignant character in the game. Having a very childlike character contemplating mortality and violence is just heartbreaking.
He’s also a marvel of animation: Vivi waddles just like you’d expect an awkward kid would.
Basically what you’d get if you wanted to rewrite Inspector Javert as a comic relief character – at least in the beginning. Alexandria is something of a matriarchy, with a mostly female army. Steiner is captain of the Knights of Pluto, the only male division. Fiercely devoted to protecting the princess, Steiner is in something of a, “my country, right or wrong,” mindset for most of the game. It’s only when the Queen attempts to put an end to Garnet’s shenanigans by executing her that Steiner begins to rethink things. By the end of the game he’s just this really cool knight dude wearing clanky armor.
My personal favourite. Freya is a Burmecian rat…person(?) who is in search of her long lost love, Sir Fratley. She likes to be the deadpan snarker and straight man to a lot of Zidane’s antics. And she gets an entire story arc devoted to her and her people – which ends up in both of their kingdoms getting trashed by Alexandria and Sir Fratley turning out to be an amnesiac. After this, she is largely forgotten by the plot, which is just a shame, only to be rectified by my 60,000 word fanfic….
Sex unknown. Purpose unknown. Barely cognizant of what’s going on, and mostly interested in eating, but still handy in a pinch. Quina is about what you would get if your dog could talk, and was some weird….doll thing? S/he can be one of the more lethal character if you get him/her to eat the right things.
The other survivor of the summoner tribe. Eiko is supposed to be six years old, but acts more like a teenager. Comes with a pet moogle thing that hides in her pocket or something. Frequently found dangling helplessly in spite of her immense powers. Has a crush on Zidane. She is pretty much this game’s version of Chibiusa.
At one point, Queene Brahne sends this giant rooster man to take you out, but he winds up joining you because….he wants to understand Zidane better….? Honestly, this guy’s the most underwritten playable character in the game, seemingly there for the sake of rounding out your party. Supposedly learns a few lessons about teamwork as the game progresses.
Garnet’s adoptive mother, and the principal evil of the first half of the game. In spite of her goofy looks, she’s an incredibly effective villain who succeeds in decimating pretty much every other kingdom in the game. She’d likely have succeeded in her plans of world domination, were it not for the fact that she’s actually a pawn of Kuja, who promply roasts her when she outlives her usefulness. Touchingly, Garnet still cares about her even after the attempted execution, and the two get a deathbed reconciliation.
Two evil court jesters in the employ of Brahne. They provide the time-honored henchman role of frequently being a nuisance for the heroes. They’re actually two halves of a monster called Meltigemini, which looks even more freaky than they do.
The real villain of IX. Kuja is a narcissistic jerk who dresses like a stripper. Initially, he poses as an amoral arms dealer, but he’s actually, like Zidane, an alien created for the purposes of destroying life on Gaia. Again, his ridiculous uber-bishounen appearance hides a man who is extremely effective and ruthless in getting what he wants. But it turns out that his actions are part of an elaborate revenge scheme against….
A being created by the Terrans to oversee the restoration of their planet while their souls sleep in some kind of suspended animation. That restoration just happens to involve the wanton destruction and assimilation of life on other planets, including Gaia. He is the creator of both Zidane and Kuja. Both of them hate his guts for different reasons: Kuja resents the fact that he was created to be a mindless slave and would rather be the head honcho; Zidane just thinks that Garland is an immoral bastard.
He has the same name and a similar character design as the villain from the original Final Fantasy, and in my headcannon I’d like to think that they’re the same person.
The real ultimate super-duper final boss of the game. He is the embodiment of death and despair which Kuja wakes up at the climax. In true Final Fantasy tradition, you’re not even aware of this guy’s existence until you have to fight him (in the underworld, no less). Although it makes no sense plot-wise, it makes for a cool and symbolic final showdown.
The ruler of Lindblum. Although his wife has transformed him into a large insect with a handlebar mustache for being a reckless adulterer, he is otherwise a pretty trustworthy authority – almost generically so. Like most guys named Cid in Final Fantasy, he eventually gives you an airship.
A knight in the employ of the Queen. Her ferocity and skill is supposedly the stuff of legend, and indeed the game allows her to beat you up three times before she defects to your side. Unfortunately you can only use her in battle a total of two times. By the end of the game, her and Steiner are a couple, and there’s even a cute sequence where the two of them are kicking ass and taking names together.
The band of thieves/actors that Zidane initially belongs to. They actually form something of a B-plot which occasionally intersects with your own adventure. They’re a good example of what IX is really good at: depicting a world where things are happening even in your abscence.
To be concluded in part two.
(Images courtesy of the Final Fantasy Wiki and Google Images)