For me, a video game is truly something special when you can take something away from it. The games I've made the deepest connections with throughout my life are ones that (perhaps in a cliché way) have changed my outlook on life. I had eased into RPGs with the likes of Pokémon and Dark Cloud, two series that aren't very story heavy. Then two games came along at once that changed my life. These were two adventures that would stick with me for the rest of my life, and shape me as a person. They satisfied my appetite for learning, and my desire to constantly improve. They taught me very important life lessons. The first of these was Skies of Arcadia, which taught me to never give up and always strive for more. The second, and most important, was Final Fantasy IX.
...what is our purpose? And ultimately, what does it mean to live or to die?
On the surface, FFIX is a very classic Final Fantasy: it's got crystals as a plot point; you're rescuing a princess who sneaks out of the palace dressed as a white mage, and the world of Gaia is deeply rooted in the series' medieval traditions. Some people took one look at the cute character models and brightly coloured fantasy world and scoffed — "It's too childlike!" "It's not as dark as VII." I never felt that with FFIX. From the moment Zidane swooped into Alexandria to kidnap Princess Garnet, to the final moments of the game, the adventure was anything but childlike. FFIX focuses on something intrinsic to human nature — what is our purpose? And ultimately, what does it mean to live or to die?
This theme resonates most prominently with Vivi. The little black mage always gets adoring cries from fans, but his journey through FFIX is one of the most touching and poignant in the series. At the village of Dali, where Vivi sees the production of black mages, he panics. It's here his whole world is turned upside down. Seeing what are essentially copies of himself mass-produced shakes Vivi to his core. His feelings overflow when the party try to escape to Lindblum and are attacked by Black Waltz No. 3. The black mages come to defend Vivi and careen off the side of the ship, and Vivi takes his revenge by obliterating the enemy. At no point did I question his reaction; he tried to provide them with the only warm interaction they ever had, and in return, the dolls acknowledge Vivi as one of their own — like a family member. While the black mages' purpose is essentially that of soldiers designed to take orders, Vivi saw beyond that. Their single act of kindness was proof to Vivi that they weren't just dolls; they had a conscience of their own and made it their purpose to save their newfound friend.
Vivi begins to understand things when the party reach the Black Mage Village. He leaves the rest of the crew at the gate and Zidane acknowledges the pain Vivi has been through during his adventure. He believes Vivi is just trying to find "A place to call home." The most prominent feature in the village is the graveyard at the back. Black Mage No. 288 and Vivi have a lengthy conversation in front of the gravestones, and this is where Vivi discovers he and the others have a limited lifespan. They don't call it death — they simply refer to it as "stopping." This euphemism really strikes a chord with me; death might be the end of your life, but it doesn't mean it's the end of your existence. You live on in people's memories and hearts.
The reason they call it "stopping" is because of the way they're designed — they're only meant to be autonomous soldiers, blindly following orders. There's nothing to remember about them, only that they're cannon fodder. That, and the mages don't understand the concept of death. The fact they're all living together, and that they bury a brother when he dies, means they have a purpose in life. His life has affected someone else's, and now that he's passed, the others stand at the grave and remember him.
I had a good understanding of what it meant to die, but seeing it from Vivi's perspective was a real eye-opener. His own tagline during the opening of the game is "How do you prove that we exist? Maybe we don't exist..." but watching the black mages get destroyed, and seeing the pain the others experience when a mage "stops" helps Vivi understand what he needs to do. Vivi can prove his existence because he has these same feelings. It's his conflicted reaction towards Queen Brahne's death that confirms this — he says he wanted her to die, and that he hates Kuja and Brahne as much as each other, yet he's sad because Garnet's crying. He decides that he has to stop more black mages from being made, and to do that, he has to defeat Kuja. That is his purpose.
It's this moment where Garnet's goals take a turn. Up until her mother's death, she's been trying to get her to stop her wicked ways, but she's begun to figure out not all of this is her doing: Kuja has been the puppetmaster pulling the strings the whole time. After Brahne's death, Garnet must take to the throne. Her purpose becomes the purpose of Alexandria, and she's determined to carry this heavy burden on her shoulder. She, like Vivi, has spent most of the journey learning about life — she's learned how the common people live, and she's seen the worst of the world through her own eyes.
What Garnet wants is what Alexandria wants, and what the world needs.
By the time she gets to this position, she has a very strong understanding of her "self." Her life is now tied to the throne of Alexandria, but she defiantly states "I will always be myself." For Garnet, though her purpose is to rule Alexandria, this does not define her as a person. Her strong grip on reality has always inspired me, and when she often finds herself in a quandary about her royal duties or her duties to her friends, she makes time to align her goals. What Garnet wants is what Alexandria wants, and what the world needs.
Zidane's story is just as important as Vivi's to me. Out of everyone, Zidane seemed the surest of who he was — "What's important is being true to oneself," he tells the others. He's the one who gives out a lot of advice, because being a thief and all, he's already experienced the rough side of life. The more he falls in love with Garnet, though, the more he begins to focus his attention on her. He makes it his duty to protect her, save her mother, and stop Kuja for good. But Zidane faces one of the most shocking revelations in the entire game
Near the closing act, Zidane and the others reach the planet Terra in search of Kuja. The group encounters a race of emotionless beings called Genomes, with tails just like Zidane. He doesn't quite accept this coincidence and begins to investigate further, heading to the castle of Pandemonium, and the ruler of Terra, Garland. There, Zidane discovers he is from this azure planet, created by Garland as the "Angel of Death" whose only purpose was to steal all of the souls from Gaia so the two planets could merge. Understandably distraught, Zidane loses all hope and begins to question his own life and existence.
For me, the "You're Not Alone" sequence is one of the best in the entire series. Initially, it's an angst-ridden trial where Zidane fights through enemy after enemy, pushing his friends aside, but it's so much more than that. Zidane, the one who helped many of his friends discover their own purpose, has lost his own. He's scared that this moniker of "Angel of Death" now defines him and that everything he's done up to this point has simply been to further this goal. But I didn't define Zidane by this title: I'd seen him show Steiner the truth and make him face his fears; he rescued Freya from despair by getting her to focus on things other than just Fratley, but also gave her the courage to find him; he bested Amarant in battle, and by not killing him shows the monk there's more to strength than physical power. If those aren't human actions, then what are?
"What's important is being true to oneself."
It takes all of Zidane's friends to make him realise that you mustn't be defined by your title, and make him remember the very words he uttered — "What's important is being true to oneself." Just because Zidane was born to destroy the world doesn't mean that's what he should be, nor what he has been, doing. He's the very person I've described above, the one who's willing to give everything to help everyone. The past doesn't dictate your future, only your resolve and your purpose does. After all, if we're to stick to Zidane's words, "You don't need a reason to help people," then does purpose really need meaning? You don't need to define why you're doing something, and your actions speak louder than your words. Zidane taught me a lot in those single moments, and it's a lesson that's stuck with me for life.
This is exercised again in the final moments of the game. Throughout the entire game, Kuja has been consumed by jealousy and prepared to do anything to destroy the world. His megalomania is poetic, and not unlike Kefka's. However, when Zidane triumphs over Kuja, there's a moment of peace between the two brothers. Kuja was willing to kill himself and everyone in order to get what he wants, but after falling to his brother's dagger, Kuja resents his selfishness and just how much pain he's caused everyone, and he goes as far as to help the rest of the party escape, but Zidane's willingness to help confuses him. After everything, why does he deserve to live? Zidane doesn't give him an answer but tells him that no one is worthless. Zidane doesn't think Kuja's past actions have defined him, and he wants to give Kuja a chance at life. He comforts him in his final moments because Kuja himself knows he's missed out. If he'd realised the consequences of his actions sooner, things might have been different, and Zidane knows this and forgives him.
This is only a smidgen of how FFIX touches on life, death, and purpose. Each character starts off with a motivation, tied by the very actions that they've experienced and the choices they've made, but break away from those actions and begin to define themselves in totally different ways. I think the game, and perhaps the protagonist's purpose, is best summed up by Vivi's final monologue:
"I always talked about you, Zidane. How you were a very special person to us, because you taught us all how important life is. You taught me that life doesn't last forever. That's why we have to help each other and live life to the fullest. Even if you say goodbye, you'll always be in our hearts. So, I know we're not alone anymore. Why I was born... How I wanted to live... Thanks for giving me time to think. To keep doing what you set your heart on... It's a very hard thing to do. We were all so courageous... What to do when I felt lonely... That was the only thing you couldn't teach me. But we need to figure out the answer for ourselves... I'm so happy I met everyone... I wish we could've gone on more adventures. But I guess we all have to say goodbye someday. Everyone... Thank you. Farewell. My memories will be part of the sky..."
The journey of FFIX has allowed each of the characters to find their place in the world, and their reason to live. Vivi has experienced more than most, but in doing so, he learned what it meant to live and die, and found his purpose in the progress. While the actions of the plot have shaped many of the characters' futures, it's those futures that they look to in order to make changes and define themselves. While Vivi may have passed by the end of the game, his memories live on because he found a purpose. FFIX is a touching experience that taught me to appreciate everything that I had, and it taught me how to make my life worthwhile. Without it, I wouldn't be sitting here years later, shaping my future and creating my own reason to live.