Monday, February 10, 2014

Final Fantasy IX- some reflections

I recently finished playing Final Fantasy 9 from the Playstation Network and had a number of thoughts on the themes of the game from a Catholic perspective.

Character and identity

A large and recurring theme in the game is that of identity, and to its credit the game features some well crafted characters that are appealing and interesting. The game's leveling up pathways for each characters differ, as does the equipment they can wear and the abilities they can learn, something that I really like as I think it reflects faithfully the principle that each individual is created by God for a definitive role or purpose and that they find fulfillment in living according to their design.  

Ultimately every human person has been known by God from eternity inasmuch as God has known Himself from all eternity and each person reflects or embodies in creation an attribute of God Himself. In the loving gaze of the Son proceeding from the Father is contained the blueprint for all created persons. When we speak of vocation it is the objective fact that God has designed you to encapsulate in your life and personality a certain fundamental truth about Him. 

We find this in FF9 in a way we don't see in FF7 where Cloud can essentially be molded by the player into whatever role the player wishes, or in later FFs where over time characters move out from their given roles. In FF9 there is an understanding that it is good to have an identity, that the quest of finding out one's identity is a worthwhile project and that fulfillment is somehow to be found through living in accords with that identity.
Each character in FF9 struggles with these issues of identity and almost half of the characters realise that they weren't who they thought they were to some degree, they then have to adapt to the reality of who they really are and discern how this is to be lived.

From a Catholic perspective some come through this crisis better than others. I think Garnet comes out very well, she integrates the fact that she is a summoner and not the biological child of the queen very well, she is honest with herself and those near to her that her background is more complicated than it seemed and yet she realises that 'who she is' is shaped by more than just biological factors and that her calling is nonetheless to be future queen.

Steiner comes through his crisis fairly well as he realises that essentially to be a good knight requires him to serve the crown faithfully but that of even greater importance is to obey the moral law written in his heart.
Vivi is a very interesting character and probably my favourite character in the game, he has the most explicit identity crisis when he discovers that he is manufactured and manufactured to carry out an immoral purpose. 
Vivi doesn't at this point reject the fact he is a black mage, something which could have happened, or alternatively decide that he has to be an evil black mage. Vivi seeks to realise how being a manufactured black mage need not mean living a destructive life. Vivi's powers and abilities which being a black mage endows him with, can be used in a good means.  In both the case of Vivi and Zidane the ability to make friends, to experience loving relations, seems to bring life to their unfortunate inherited natures of being creatures intended to destructive purposes.

Here is a glimpse of the reality that each of us, regardless of how messed up our family background is, possesses a fundamental vocation to love and that in loving others the meaning of our lives in illuminated. When we love and give ourselves in love we come closer to enabling who we really are, in God's plan, to surface.

Reality of Objective Moral laws.

Final Fantasy 9 actually does fairly well here, much better than 10 or 12, there are clear “conscience characters” such as Vivi and Steiner who are reliable in asserting the moral order. Everyone knows that the mage-manufacturing is objectively wrong, that it is an undignified way to come into the world and a perversion of the natural creative order- it doesn't need to be vocalised, it is presumed quite rightly that what is going on is wrong and that an objective moral law that is being broken.  

Interior Struggle to pursue the good.

We don't see too many occasions where characters have to fight their fallen side and selfish inclinations to do what is right, perhaps in Steiner as he vows to rescue to princess or fights to the end to try and defend the castle. The good characters generally find it easy to pursue the right course. When it comes to the struggle to remain pure and live a chaste life, there are some problems with modesty on behalf of Garnet and clearly Zidane has issues with the ninth commandment. Overall however the game is not generally impure, even if there is no recognition of the battle to remain chaste which we must all undertake and the virtue in being victorious in this fight. That Cid experiences a punishment for his womanising behaviour is treated with humour, but certainly it seems that after the experience of having been a variety of different creatures, he is quite sure that he is now going to remain faithful to his wife, nor does he have any resentment towards her but realises that her punishment on him had been deserved in some sense.

Divine Providence working through free will.

There is no reference to providence or the concept that there is higher power at work in bringing about the good. There is some irony in that Garland's instruments to destroy Gaia end up destroying him. That evil destroys itself through its wicked schemes is an important truth that the game seems to echo a number of times.

Self sacrifice for others

On quite a number of times we see characters choosing to stay to fight with their friends when the friend wishes to go on a solo vendetta. There is a very strong emphasis on the value of fighting for the good and being willing to join another in his own personal struggle for what is right. At the end of the game we even see Zidane wishing to undergo great danger to be with Kuja, and even possibly to save him, he does this on the basis of understanding that he could have easily become like Kuja, and also after recognising that Kuja has been responsible for teleporting the party into safety. 

Basic Christian Theodicy- Monotheism, Goodness of creation, understanding of eternal reward/punishment based on moral behaviour.

 After having commented on how supportive the game is to a basic Christian worldview we finally come to its major weakness! Unfortunately, the game has major problems in the area of the natural theology. Only gradually do the problems become apparent and they are generally confined to the last disc. I will outline three problem areas.

1) The game has the typical FF poison of viewing souls as recyclable, the idea that, after you die, your soul returns to the planet, to then, at a later point be given to another individual. This idea essentially does away with any concept of reward or punishment for good and evil, and the fate of each is exactly the same- essentially annihilation. This means that the whole emphasis on identity and character present throughout the game is rendered rather meaningless for ultimately you have no lasting identity, you are a recycled soul that will, very soon, sink back into the mush of soul energy. The nature of the soul is even more problematically presented as the game explains how the souls of the dead that are inside the planet can be sucked up to be used to power airships, and indeed to animate artificial creatures. This undermines the previous strength of the game in emphasising the dignity of the individual as a person with a unique identity and so the player is ultimately left very confused as to whether his life has any meaning at all, or indeed, whether his life actually is uniquely his own or is some kind of reincarnation job.

2) Then there is the problem about how the game answers its own ongoing question of "what is the meaning of life?" The issue is significant for Vivi because he does not have a clear identity/ character which can easily offer his life meaning. Vivi, at one point in the game, perhaps its highest point, considers what it means to die and whether life continues after death, the moment is profound and well crafted. 

Sadly the conclusion he comes to at the end of the game and the solution that the game promotes is the following: A) that 'our memories live on'   and B) that we should live life “to the full” while we can. With respect to the first 'solution' (A) the game proposes a bizarre theory that all life, apparently having evolved from space dust, has a connection to each other and that the connection carries the memory of lower life forms- I'd like to see how consoling that doctrine is to someone on their deathbed. It is philosophically ridiculous for obvious reasons. Even if we take the view that memories have a physical side to them and are in some way impressed upon the brain, it is certain that a rock or a particle in space cannot possess a memory, Furthermore, even if memories are simply physical qualities of the brain, the brain is not, in its entirety transmitted in sexual reproduction. Aside from the nonsense pseudo science, at its most basic sense, Vivi's first solution is not evil and it has some basis in scripture. In the Old Testament there is a strong sense at times that it is a good thing to be remembered as an honorable person in order to be an example and encouragement for future generations. The point is however; our memories do not live on somewhere out there, floating around in the sky. Our memories do live on, in as much as God wills it, as infused knowledge in the separated soul that has gone forth to be judged by him

The second solution (B) is much more pernicious and undermines a lot of what is good about the game, it is fundamentally the assertion of atheist existentialists- that life is meaningless but enjoy the ride and forget about how meaningless the whole thing is.
What should have Vivi said from his position as living before divine revelation? Well, ideally Vivi could have concluded A) our memories live on and B) Our lives have value from the good we achieve in them. C) The good we perform goes with us into the unknown of the next life to bring us some kind of reward.
3) Finally, in terms of natural theology, the game suffers, in its closing few hours, from a bizarre theological idea that all life, all souls, all existence, somehow depends on this giant space crystal and that if the space crystal is destroyed everything falls into annihilation.... The Almighty space crystal which is completely inert, indifferent, unthinking, rock is somehow the source of the existence of life- both spiritual and physical. Furthermore, the Almighty space crystal needs its creatures to defend it! Finally, the fact that the crystal is a thing, existing in the universe, causes anyone with a little bit of philosophical reasoning to realise that a thing, existing in the universe, itself composed of parts cannot be the eternal uncreated, source for the universe. Because the crystal is a material thing we can reasonably ask "how, indeed, did this crystal get there?"- Things don't simply exist they require an explanation. Even if the space crystal is the cause of other material life, the space crystal needs an uncreated, eternal, spiritual, immutable cause.

Overall I enjoyed playing FFIX- from a gamer’s point of view the game has a lot going for it- the music, the battle system, the lightheartedness, the character development. The game is also the very peak of the psx graphical capabilities. The battles system had fewer cracks in it compared to 8, which could easily be broken by the gamer and the summons are a lot shorter to watch! I’m probably rate it above ff8 and ff12 but under ff7 and 10.As the game went on I was disappointed with the nonsense Japanese new agey stuff that infects the otherwise healthy portrayal of characters trying to work out their place in the universe. The plot isn't as insidious as FFX, Xenogears or Final Fantasy Tactics but it isn't a preparation for the Gospel by any means.


Unknown said...

As a cosplayer,I contacted the first type of animation is Final Fantasy.I like this anime very much ,really really like the Final Fantasy cosplay costume,it's so cool and beautiful!

Sacred Vox said...

Final Fantasy IX is my favorite and you did a great job at analyzing it from a Catholic perspective. I'm a convert to the Catholic faith that is also a cosplayer, anime fan and gamer. I run a blog & podcast ( ) as well, where I write about similar things as this blog. Do you guys take submissions? Perhaps I'll submit something.

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Neymar the world famous said...
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Van Golliaz said...

I loved your point of view!
I'm Brazilian, Catholic too, me and my brother are trying to bring some alike message, the God message behind things, specially video game, that is a great and effective way to touch life of peoples, because it is art!
I've made already a post about Chrono Cross and translated for you if it interests you. I hope you like it! It is here:
Keep your good work!
God bless!

Yandel Martin said...

final fantasy is one of my favorite games.. :) it's so amazing and cool

suggested Montana Elk Hunts Rifle 7 Day Pack Trip said...

I love this final fantasy games

Aisha Mendez said...
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Erickson Tayang said...
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Unknown said...

I love this gamebut the ending made me,really uncomfortable spiritually. Jesus defeated death and so Necrons speech is a mockery of Christ's work on the cross.

Miles Mariae said...

Thank you Helen for your thoughts, I completely agree.

FFIX just goes a little strange towards the end....

I hope to play through ffvi again and write a review on it when I get the time. Right now I am playing through Metal Gear Solid 2

Unknown said...

Ffvi is not perfect but thr conclusions made about life are much closer to the Christian view than FF9. Terra even somewhat seems to be an allegory to Christ in some ways, nearly sacrificing herself for her team.

Unknown said...

Vivis ending is also very sad. I wanted to go into the game and tell him all about Jesus.

Unknown said...

Looking at this again. The ending of FF9 seems demonically inspired. Satan often wraps his lies in deceptively beautiful packages.

Jack said...

I agree that it is very confused philosophically. The conflict is between what I would call the game's main theme - the transcendental value of personhood - and the pantheistic cosmology that its universe is built upon. A charitable interpretation would be that it's a pagan philosophy struggling in the direction of Christianity but falling short; so Vivi's stuff at the end about his memories living on "in the sky" is a clumsy attempt to give eternal value to his personality, i.e. he has a Christian feeling for the value of the human person, but his pagan cosmology prevents him from truly being able to understand and justify this vague sentiment.

I don't think that the crystal is meant to be seen as a physical entity as such. I think it exists on some higher dimension, and would be better seen as a kind of pantheistic "World Spirit" - all of the world's particular spirits flow to and from it. Kuja's attempt to destroy the crystal is not an attempt to destroy a glittering rock, but the very ground of being/existence itself; it's an nihilistic expression of his hatred of life/existence. In the end, it's the party's friendship that overcomes this nihilism, something akin to Christian charity.

Memoria exists in a different dimension as well, as the collection of all the planet's memories (of all the souls that have lived there). The fuzzy notion about all of our memories being one and enduring forever on some higher plane tries to do two things, (1) affirm the eternity of our personality, at least in some way, (2) affirm the inter-connectedness/dependence of all life, as a cosmological basis for the value of love/friendship.
Love, memory, identity/personhood - these are the game's main themes, and their importance can only really be seen in the light of a Christian cosmology. It's difficult to reconcile the game's central love story - and the transcendent value of their love and of love in general - with all this stuff about soul recycling and planets merging, etc.

Helen may be right that it is demonically inspired. But whether the player comes away from the experience feeling that the importance of the human person has been affirmed, or confused and dismayed by its bizarre cosmology - will vary from person to person. Being sentimental, my mind has always glossed over the fuzzy philosophy at the end and rushed to see the happy ending to the love story (which is beautiful, and Christian insofar as it emphasises the importance of self-sacrifice and devotion). The theme "melodies of life" speaks to me about the immortality of the soul and centrality of love, totally separate from the game's attempt at cosmology. I think it helps that I grew up "pagan" (non-believing) and had to struggle my way to Christianity, so the game's bad philosophy probably doesn't disturb me so much (I'm not unfamiliar with it). But I can see how such false teaching could confuse the minds of those who have been brought up Christian, especially if they are young. So I wouldn't recommend this game to young Christians.

Dan James said...

I'm unsure whether FFIX's ending is something to worry about or not ... aside from the memories thing, Vivi's conclusion is that "life doesn't last forever. That's why we have to help each other and live life to the fullest." (emphasis mine)

In context, it seems to me that Vivi's saying they need to stick by each other in their times of need (good!) and to make the most out of life, to not waste it. Yeah, many atheist materialists would come to the conclusion of "living life to the fullest", but so would many Catholics and other Christians -- they just wouldn't stop there, because they'd know what living to the fullest means: helping others! That's pretty much what Vivi says too, though he seems to mean on a more personal level (within the cast of FFIX).

I interpret Vivi's conclusion as this: one must make the most out of their lives, and support others as they also go through the same struggles. What "the most" is will depend on the player's point of view. (It's kind of a cop out, actually!) To me, it doesn't seem particularly atheistic, just vague.

I thought about Necron's speech, too, but I see it as an opposing, false ideology the protagonists are fighting, similar to the nihilism of Kefka in FFVI. Necron claims that life only exists to die, and that death rules over all ... but Zidane tells him that the protagonists will defeat Necron and prove him wrong! Nothing will be ended as long as they have the will to live. Sure enough, Necron is defeated, never comprehending how strong the will to live truly was. So I don't think the game is trying to make a mockery of Christ and support a view that evil reigns supreme.

I think FFIX does have undertones of the humanism that becomes sacreligious atheism in FFX and FFXIII, because it glorifies the human will so much. But it doesn't pit humanism against religion and claim the former is better, like those games do.

Unknown said...

Dan those are excellent points too. Love that this is a place we can all debate and talk about video games and faith.

Dan James said...

Thanks Helen! I agree, it's great to have a place like this.