[SPOILER WARNING: If you've yet to play Final Fantasy IX I have to caution you on a couple of spoilers. It's nothing major, but they are mentioned, and one of the key points I make details a spoiler that takes place near the end of the third disc. If you try to keep yourself spoiler free, turn away now. I would strongly encourage you to read the article regardless, as the spoilers aren't heavy and I believe the strength of what I highlight here should be known by all gamers. Happy reading!]
Andrew Kauz wrote an article
calling developers to provide more interesting protagonists. It's an article that I agree with wholeheartedly, and while I have nothing to add to his statements directly, reading through it managed to wring something out of me. I've been meaning to write about the love I have for Final Fantasy IX for months now, and since I consider FFIX to be an excellent example of what Kauz is pushing for, I may as well do so now.
When I was seven years old my Mother took me to Target to pick out a video game. My report card had shown that I was doing well in school; my reward was a video game of my choice. I remember seeing Final Fantasy VII hanging there behind the glass, a spiky haired guy with a big sword posing epically, the promise of adventure hidden inside of a little plastic case. Excitedly, I chose it as my prize. It was a turning point for me as a gamer, changing my after school fun into a passionate love of all things digital and interactive.
I didn't discover Final Fantasy IX until years later, and like all Final Fantasy games I discovered as a child, I didn't play through the bulk of it for more years still. It holds the honor of being the first Final Fantasy I ever sat down to play with the intention of completing, as well as the honor of being one of the few games that have managed to impact me in a serious, emotional way. It's close to my heart and it's most definitely my favorite Final Fantasy release to date. My adoration of the game is owed largely in part to the way it chooses to implement its protagonist, as well as the impact this narrative decision had on my experience.
Final Fantasy games are known for their narratives. You generally have on central character that the story revolves around and several "support" characters who exist to further the main character's goals. Oftentimes a number of them aren't very important to the overall narrative, and not much would be affected if you were to pluck them from the plot. Certain games in the series follow this more than others, and a case for the strength of an individual narrative can be made for each game in the series.
When you first begin to play through Final Fantasy IX, you'd be right to assume that Zidane Tribal is at the center of the game's plot. After all, he's the character you control the most throughout the game. It's a rare occurrence that you'll leave him to his own devices; in essence wherever Zidane goes, you go. As time wears on and you delve deeper in the game, you'll notice something. Zidane isn't at the center of the events of the game. In fact, it's reasonable to say that he's just along for the ride, the issues at hand centered on other members of the party. This is the brilliance of Final Fantasy IX.
By putting you in the role of someone who is a support character for most of the game, you're provided an outside view on the events that unfold, and an outside perspective on the rest of the cast. In this way you're able to identify with the anguish of Dagger over her Mother's conquest, empathize with Vivi over the reality of his eventual death, and look on with understanding when Steiner is in turmoil, pondering betraying his oath of fealty for the greater good. It becomes less about what Zidane is doing, and more about the personal struggles of each individual character. You aren't telling Zidane's story, you're experiencing the story of Final Fantasy IX through Zidane's eyes.
I genuinely care about each character as if they were a real people. This is owed largely in part to the fact that when they needed someone most, I was there for them. As silly as it may sound, seeing these characters when they were emotionally vulnerable adhered them to me as people. At one point or another everyone goes through something. Whether that something be the toils of having alcoholic parents, the thing I've struggled with most, or any other number of hardships, we've all been emotionally unstable. Odds are that there is at least one character in Final Fantasy IX that you'll be able to relate to, for me it was Dagger and her inner struggle regarding her Mother, Queen Brahne. Her self reproach for her Mother's wrongdoings was nearly identical to my own struggle with my parents' alcoholism, and because of that I grew attached to her.
Eventually the story does shift focus to Zidane, but not until near the end of the game. By this point you've built up an emotional attachment to each character, simply because throughout the game you've served as their support and they haven't served as yours. There's a particularly poignant scene in which Zidane is walking down a corridor, crushed and defeated by discovering his origins. As he slowly proceeds, powerful monsters attack him. In each new battle a different party member will come to your aid, constantly reminding you that you don't have to face this alone. They're serving as your
support, helping Zidane through his denial and you the player through a series of difficult fights. You can watch the scene on Youtube if you're interested.
Final Fantasy has always been able to wretch emotion from me. Deaths throughout the series and beautiful endings being perfect examples. Keeping those epic examples in mind, it should mean all the more when I say to you that no scene has ever affected me as deeply as the corridor scene in Final Fantasy IX. Watching the character I've built up to be the very backbone of my party fall into utter darkness was heart wrenching. I immediately panicked. How was the party going to continue on? If Zidane had given up hope, what would become of the rest of them? To see each and every party member do all they could to hold Zidane up, to remind him of his tremendous spirit, was more powerful than any death had ever been. The people I had come to love were there for Zidane, and in turn, they were there for me.
Final Fantasy IX dared to provide a fresh perspective in a genre so full of staleness, and in doing so proved the power in changing something as simple as the protagonist's role. To this day it remains one of two video games that have managed to bring me to tears, something that I believe speaks volumes of its ability to affect gamers on a deeper level. If you've yet to play through it and are a fan of the genre, I simply cannot stress enough how much you need to play this game.
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