The Case for Final Fantasy IX
In the perennial scrum over which Final Fantasy deserves the title of “best in the series,” Final Fantasy IX is seldom championed. The loudest advocates usually cite Final Fantasy VI for its operatic narrative, Final Fantasy VII for its outsized influence on the JRPG genre, or Final Fantasy X for having The Most Kissing (in fairness, this is an argument I can get behind). Final Fantasy IX is generally acknowledged as being a polished, solid, earnest game that nevertheless can’t stand out above its predecessors.
I’m here to tell you that this is baloney. Final Fantasy IX is soon to be released on Steam, and has already shown up on mobile devices. You owe it to yourself to play it, because it’s not only the most polished and charming entry in the series, it’s also the most thematically coherent. While FFVII changed RPGs with its focus on cinematic cutscenes, FFIX understands that games are much more like live theater than cinema, and uses the imagery and language of the stage to tell its grand adventure story.
At the outset of FFIX, players assume the role of Zidane, a member of the traveling acting-company-slash-bandit-gang Tantalus, en route to kidnap the game’s female lead, Princess Garnet. Tantalus means to use their performance of the play “I Want to Be Your Canary” (a faux-Shakespearean tragic romance) as a distraction so Zidane can infiltrate the castle and make off with the princess. The plan quickly runs into complications, but not before the game bombards us with theatrical imagery and uses a few neat tricks to reinforce to the player that the game, like all games, is itself a kind of theater, in which the player is both performer and audience.
“I Want to Be Your Canary” involves a battle between the members of Tantalus and the company’s leader, Baku, who’s playing the role of overbearing tyrant. This battle plays out like any battle in a Final Fantasy, in which characters attack, use items, and cast spells. The catch, in this case, is that the battle is just for show, as the spells deal no damage (though they are, visually, quite flashy) and there’s no real risk of losing. It’s all a performance, put on for the benefit of the audience. After the battle, there’s an acrobatic sword duel between Zidane and fellow actor Blank, which plays out in the form of a mini-game. Press the proper buttons along with the prompts, and the duel plays out cleanly, the audience is impressed, and you’ll snag a material reward. If you do poorly, there are no real consequences, but the illusion is broken and the scene doesn’t play out as it should.
These battles are, of course, emblematic of the game as a whole. When you step into the role of Zidane, or Vivi the Black Mage, or Princess Garnet, or any hero or heroine in any game, you are a player in a performance for which you are also the audience. Push the correct buttons and the performance proceeds smoothly. Fail, and there are no real consequences besides a poor show. These play-acting battles are FFIX’s way of winking and nodding at us, to let us know that it understands this fundamental truth about games.
It’s not just in the opening that the game places an emphasis on performance. Throughout the story, Final Fantasy IX is very concerned with the roles that its characters play. The members of its primary cast are almost all searching for a role to perform, trying on new ones, or finding themselves in crisis over the roles they currently play. Zidane, who begins the game as an actor and a thief, abandons his theater company (and, really, his only family) to play the hero and become the princess’s escort as she attempts to escape the clutches of her mother’s greed. He finds himself well-suited to this role for a time, but the events of the game regularly conspire to oust him from it. Eventually, like just about every Final Fantasy protagonist, Zidane discovers that he has a secret history--one that prescribes for him the role of villain.
Princess Garnet, for her part, assumes a new identity in order to travel the countryside undetected, taking on the name of “Dagger.” She does this to prevent her mother, Queen Brahne, from starting a war, setting aside her role as princess in an attempt to serve her kingdom. Ultimately, she fails in that regard, and after two discs’ worth of traveling as a commoner, is forced to assume the role of Queen herself--a role at which she fails pretty immediately. This failure throws her into an identity crisis that causes her to lose her voice, making her completely useless as a party member.
Garnet’s spell of speechlessness is the best example of the way in which FFIX’s emphasis on the roles characters play exists both narratively and mechanically. More than in any Final Fantasy since FFIV on the SNES, each party member in the game has a defined role in battle, with abilities specific to their character. Vivi is a Black Mage not just because that is A Final Fantasy Job-- in FFIX, to be a Black Mage has a very specific narrative meaning, and one that causes Vivi no end of existential angst, forcing him to confront the essential nature of his being and his imminent mortality. (And also, yes, it lets him cast Firaga.) When Garnet loses her voice and you’re forced to navigate without a healer, it underscores this narrative link: when she finds herself incapable of playing her role in society, she becomes incapable of playing her role in the party, and the show must go on without her.
No character is more aware of the game’s theatricality than its ultimate villain, Kuja, who fancies himself the impresario of the whole affair. Kuja, in his melodramatic monologuing, uses lines like “Your tragic role in this drama now comes to an end! I'm sure you'll enjoy the second act from your soul's hellish prison, since the stage will be your former home!” It’s a bit of egomaniacal faff meant to get us to loathe his pomposity (it works), but it’s just one of a constant string of thematic reminders that the game parades before us. Upon arriving in the city of Lindblum, we visit the Theater District. We follow the antics of Tantalus, the acting troupe, as they try to rebuild after the loss of their theater ship. One of the game’s later dungeons is called “Ipsen’s Castle,” a reference to the fictional playwright responsible for “I Want to Be Your Canary.” Even the game’s battle arenas feel more like stages than they ever have, before or since.
It’s this sort of imagery and theming that makes FFIX a triumph: its script, its systems, its characters, and its visual aesthetic all combine to present a thematically cohesive whole, a feat which often goes unrecognized. Now that the game is available on a wider variety of platforms than ever, it’s the perfect time to give the game a second look -- or a first, if you’ve yet to play it -- and experience the role-playing game most concerned with playing roles.