I’ve started playing through Final Fantasy 9 with the intention of doing an in depth analysis and review at some point in the not too distant future. Even in the first hour of the game, I can’t help but marvel at some of the incredible design decisions that were made. I’m not sure if incredible is the right word… maybe unbelievable? No, that’s not it. I think I just mean bad.
Final Fantasy 9 opens with an FMV cutscene. I hope you like those (and the non-FMV variety), because the beginning of the game is packed with them far more than I would think is necessary. To be fair, this is a point where gaming has almost fully moved away from allowing the player to organically discover game mechanics and instead tutorializes at the player, and rather than express ideas through mechanics games show you things with text boxes. You know what, we’ll come back to this later, as I think the mechanical presentation of FF9 does do a lot of good for its storytelling (especially if compared to FF7 or 8).
Anyways, something about cutscenes. Oh yeah, that’s where we start. We see a flashback/memory/daydream where what will inevitably be a main character (this isn’t Xenogears, villains are only going to get so much screen time) looks back on a wild ride through stormy waters. When she snaps out of it, she is sitting in a very wedding-like dress (this doesn’t seem to come up again, and the first time she’s encountered as a character model she’s wearing a very different outfit) in a castle in a rather large city next to a lake on the edge of a truly enormous cliff. As introductions go, this is something that the developers of RPGs on the NES could not even have imagined when they first coded their games in the brutal ASM of Famicom cartridges. It’s a very epic introduction to what is clearly intended to be a very epic fantasy (did it succeed at that intention? let’s not get too ahead of ourselves – this is just a preview to an intended series of articles). The scene smoothly transitions to an airship, showing off a majestic (and majestically detailed) ship before shifting to the interior and focusing on our (main) main character for this Fantasy.
Ultimate vehicle of RPGs past, ultimate opening of RPGs future.
After briefly showing a shot of the monkey-tailed boy (man with a giant head, really. FF9 goes for a style that invokes memories of the old NES and SNES era FF games, and I love it for that) that will be our main point of entry into the world, the game lets us cut our teeth on a little bit of gameplay.
Emphasis on the little in little bit, as the ability to access the menu, find three things, and then advance to a scene that plays out with a minimum of player interaction. But before we move on to the rest of the game, lets look at the bizarre contradiction that is the first playable moment of the game.
You are granted agency over the monkey-tailed boy (Zidane, his default name is Zidane, and it’s shorter than monkey-tailed boy) in a very dark room. The area immediately around Zidane has some light from a match (or candle, it’s not entirely clear and not at all important), but the rest of the room is shrouded from sight. Wait a few seconds, and the game does one of the strangest things I’ve seen in an RPG. It prompts you on the screen, “Light the candle in the middle of the room!” There’s an exclamation mark even. This is serious.
Just light it already!
The thing is, once you light the candle, player agency is removed for the time being, a combat sequence starts (which does a lot worse of a job at introducing the complexities of battle than it could have if it was treated as a tutorial and game event rather than just a game event), and the player is unable to go back to looking around the room. As I mentioned before, there are three things to find in this room. This isn’t odd, it’s normal for information and items (one piece of information, an item, and some money, to be specific). It is odd for the game to work to push you forward when there are rewards for going slower and exploring.
That text prompt embodies a strange confusion, a simultaneous push and pull that seems to permeate a significant amount of Final Fantasy 9’s design philosophy (at least in the first few hours, it’s been long enough that I don’t remember the late game well). The game isn’t just made with a forward direction to go, it’s made with a voice in your ear whispering (or shouting, at times) to go forward, while the entire world lays open and full of rewards and opportunities for those that stop and wander about instead.
As we look at more of the game, we’ll see more of the strange things it does. It’s been a while since I’ve given it a full play through, so I can only hope to find some interesting surprises on the way through. I love Final Fantasy 9, and I hope to do it justice in looking at it in great depth. Like all of the Final Fantasy series, it’s a fascinating piece of RPG history and a great game. I’m excited for this breakdown, and I hope you’ll enjoy it too.