Before any digital ink is spilled, allow me to clarify. This essay marks RPGFan’s first coverage of a Third Editions published book. I would prefer it not to be our last. Whatever quibbles I might have over particular volumes, I believe RPGFan and Third Editions to be of a like mind. We love games, RPGs especially, and care about their themes beyond some breathless rush to declare them art. There is no self-interest in elevating our hobby. We’re just out here writing for…well, for the love of the game.
But camaraderie is not an excuse for flattery. There is too much at stake when we’re talking about Final Fantasy IX!
“Which Final Fantasy is my favorite? Heh, I prefer IX.”
Final Fantasy IX was never overshadowed so much as it exists in a series of overlapping penumbras. Final Fantasy VII was far more influential, FFVIII sold twice its amount, and FFX was the brand’s revival for the next generation. Even its own announcement came as a package deal; buy into Final Fantasy IX, you nerds, and you’ll also get the RPG of the Future and an MMO to pry away even more of your time (X and XI). Even as a commercial failure, it was outdone by the inimitable Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
Part of this was inevitable. Square in the late 90s was full steam ahead in exploiting the popularity of its flagship franchise. They knew they could squeeze one more bead of blood out of that little machine, the PSX, and this time it would be for the fans (not so much first-timers). The emphasis on visible references and remixes of pre-PSX Final Fantasy motifs buried the wonderful originality right beneath the surface. In the end, it also buried Hironobu Sakaguchi like a beautiful pharaoh’s tomb decorated in moogles.
So, FFIX is in a strange position. Those who played it have very vivid memories of it and strongly recall a feeling of the game being “overlooked.” But its reputation as a celebration of Final Fantasy tends to repel the first-timers, and it stands to reason that the number of people who would buy a book about FFIX without having played it would be minimal: much lower than that ratio for FFVII, for instance, which was created with the idea of bringing in new players and has forged a consistent identity independent from the franchise. The sheer gravity of FFVII means that anyone curious about this cultural phenomenon might give a highly rated book about it a spin. For those people, an in-depth plot recap and recapitulation of common knowledge might make good sense. For a book about FFIX, you cannot expect the same script to work.
Basically, if you’re writing a book like this, you want to avoid language that is so insider it resembles academic jargon. That’s dry and boring. You also want to avoid covering things so broadly that anyone reading already knows about it or could have found it in a Wikipedia article. If I’m reading a book about the Civil War and you reveal to me that Abraham Lincoln was the President, I might begin to wonder if you intend to waste my time.
So, somewhere in the middle of the JSTOR to Lincoln continuum is ideally where a book like this should land and where I’ve found the best Third Editions books to sit; the volumes on Dark Souls, Sekiro, and Berserk are there. Further on the Lincoln continuum is also possibly acceptable if you have the herculean task of summarizing and synthesizing a whole series. The Metal Gear volume is very readable, as is the Miyazaki book. On the other hand, the Third Editions’ The Legend of Dragon Quest is bereft of almost any original insights and is mostly satisfied in regurgitating what any fan of the series already knows and what any newcomer could easily learn without spending the money.
The Legend of Final Fantasy IX is not as dire as The Legend of Dragon Quest, but it does feel weighed down by Third Editions’ success as an independent publisher.
Creation – Universe – Decryption
Third Editions has a very particular way they organize their books. They really identify with the subtitle/header above, going so far as to include it in the title, but is it effective? The most apt comparison after reading half a dozen books in this style is that it feels like reading an older history book with their obligatory chapters on art, music, and military campaigns, whether or not the author could convincingly talk about any of them.
Creation refers to background information about the development of the game: the relevant context for how it was made. Universe talks about the world, characters, and plot. This could mean a blow-by-blow description of events as they unfold in the story or a more pared-down summary of what happened. It depends on the author writing it. Decryption is where the meat and novel textual analysis is. If you bought one of these books to see a unique take or convincing breakdowns of existing interpretation, this is the section of the book to turn to.
It’s not often you see a book’s table of contents proudly listed as a subtitle. It’s an ungainly one, too. It makes you go “huh?” when you read it. For Third Editions, however, this is their signature. All Final Fantasy games covered under their RPGs label (they have an additional Sagas label for non-RPG games and one for Manga & Animation) have the C-U-D subtitle on the front cover, but many others tuck it into chapter headings where it still guides the book’s structure.
On Universe. The plot summary is vital in a book about, say, the Dark Souls series because even the most basic details of that world are obscured and your actions uncertain. FFIX is a more traditional tale, pretty much by design. You want to get to the bits that are more hidden or subversive, especially since you’re unlikely to read a book like this without having played the game it’s based on.
The plot summary offered here is skim-worthy for sure. It is beat for beat and likes to share those Abraham Lincoln facts (“Amarant immediately wants to fight Zidane!) when it isn’t misrepresenting when certain reveals take place (“Cid gives a forced laugh: in truth, the curse is the work of his wife, who, angry about her regent husband’s latest infidelity, decided to exact vengeance on him and then skip town”). The author wants to get on with the good stuff as much as we do, C-U-D structure be damned.
Another issue that pops up is repetition. There is a tedious plot summary and then a rehash of these same beats for the character backgrounds as well. It is very awkward. Fifty pages in with very little that couldn’t be found in a Wikipedia article, and I was worried. Luckily, it improves significantly as we move away from the obligatory fluff. We’re focusing on points made in the Decryption section because this book is at its best is when it delivers on its deliciously nerdy promise, an FFIX under the microscope of literary analysis.
Gaia and Terra: The Worlds Are a Stage
Gaia is a wonderfully realized character, and the author does a great job giving it the attention it deserves. It makes perfect sense now, but I had never put together the fact that the existence of the monster-infested mist has driven the population of Gaia to the uplands. All of the major cities are on high plateaus or mountainsides. The game itself does not take the player aside to describe these basic facts but assumes you’ll be able to carry on without knowing every clever bit of worldbuilding (a tactic plenty of modern JRPGs could learn from).
The mist that gives the Mist Continent its name is more sinister than just a smokescreen where monsters breed. It is also a clean and seemingly endless fuel source, perfect both for the civilian technologies that make Lindblum an industrial marvel but also for deadly weapons.
As an antagonist, the Iifa Tree is more inert but just as dynamic in its machinations as Kuja. The mist supplied by the alien parasite Iifa Tree ends up fueling industrial advancement and inevitable war, spurred on by the solicitations of Kuja’s arms trading. It is also one of the more inspired callbacks to old Final Fantasy, as a more developed version of everyone’s favorite evil tree, Ex-Death.
But the Iifa Tree and Kuja are agents of the same grand plan. Death is what is required above all for Garland, the Guardian of Terra. With the creep of Gaian civilization into the mountains and away from the mist, the Black Mages were the next step in creating the bloodbath necessary to siphon souls through the Tree and weaken Gaia’s crystal. The soulless Black Mages, created with Kuja’s incredible magical abilities, would be peddled to Gaian leaders jealous of the mist-led advancements of their neighbors as the perfect soldiers. It was a strange imitation of the very soulless genomes Garland had created on Terra as receptacles for the souls of his people on the day their planet was restored.
Let’s take a breath. This is all cool as hell, but it bears repeating how understated this information is in the game itself. It presents these conflicts far more simply: good vs. evil, plucky gang vs. corrupted queen, puppets vs. the puppeteer. This makes the book’s exegesis, the decryption, even more satisfying when it lands.
And really, this Terran/Human analogy is where the good stuff is. Terra and Gaia are both shorthands for Earth and humanity, with the Terrans happy to let their planet become a lifeless husk until it directly affects them. Their solution, of course, was to export their voraciousness to the Gaians. There is little meditation on the sustainability of their way of life, only a sociopathic insistence that the planet of Gaia and its inhabitants shoulder the burden of supporting Terra. This is the logic of the imperial center and periphery. As we’ve seen, because of the Mist that the Terrans created via the Iifa Tree, the people of Gaia were pushed into nation-states that have begun to take on the characteristics of the voracious, warmongering Terrans. Those who made their living as farmers or small town artisans would find themselves run out of common lands into the swelling cities, in a fantastical recreation of the enclosure movement that privatized land in 18th century England and set the foundation for capitalism’s ascendance in that country.
Terra and Gaia have also collided before, literally. The collision was cataclysmic, obliterating most of Gaia’s native life (just as colonialism eradicated large swathes of the existing population, flora, and fauna), creating new life through violent synthesis. And just as guns and horses reshaped decimated societies in the new world, magic was a “gift” from the Terrans that changed Gaia forever. The Mist technology is a kind of path-dependence, with the Terrans putting their finger on the scale like colonial powers during their subjects’ technological undertakings with the powers in their orbit (like the Comanches and their horses, the Dahomey of West Africa and their guns and slaves, etc.)
This is as sophisticated an exploration of colonialism as you’ll see in any medium, and Sakaguchi gives space to the player to understand the pathos of all involved, to know why the Terran’s plot is wrong without shouting it explicitly. As the author spells out, “the game’s creators clearly shows their desire to tackle the subject of war head-on, without hiding it behind allegory or metaphor.”
The most spectacular proof of this is the FMV cutscenes. Where classic Final Fantasy summons were limited to extra flashy battle spells or quick cutscenes that play out as fancy stage lights in a necessarily truncated, overtly theatrical presentation of Sakaguchi and his team’s desired stories, entire civilizations were destroyed in front of our eyes in FFIX. NPCs we had just observed became annihilated, their families and homes along with them, with no hope for survival and attempts at heroic self-sacrifice made futile. Final Fantasy IX made overt throwbacks to the theatricality of classic FF but became shockingly real with the power of 3D.
These sudden scenes of mass destruction were what stuck with me the most playing the game as a kid. It might be a blessing of the PlayStation’s technical limitations, but the lack of character interjections during these scenes let the player form their own thoughts and let the moments stand on their own. Even when you regain control of Zidane, his response is mostly muted observation, a deeply disconcerting attitude for the plucky protagonist. Even he realizes how small he is against the weapons of war. I would often replay the early beats of FFIX to revel in the moments just before everything hits the fan, and then watch those FMVs awestruck all over again. It is a full culmination of the writer’s beliefs on war, its material origins, and the cost in lives it extracts. Just superb economic storytelling, and something this book understands very well.
Something else this book understands well is theater and drama. This is fortunate because my knowledge here is lacking.
The author asserts that the main cast of FFIX is memorable thanks in part to the roles assigned to them, the jobs from classic Final Fantasy games past. While the book claims this becomes cliche, I would counter that FFIX is very playfully aware of these stereotypes and that the writers finally felt comfortable expanding from the early Final Fantasy characters as brief representations to something more actualized. It feels like the drawings were colored in enthusiastically after nearly two decades of sketches. The author even, at one point, makes the comparison between FFIX’s characters and 17th-century Italian theater (it is “more or less explicit”). IX’s cast is colorful and larger than life, a perfect fit for the stage.
Zidane is a flirtatious thief whose impulses and addiction to camaraderie make him a natural leader in any adventure troupe. Despite his overabundance of charisma, he is an artificial creation, an alien golem put on Gaia to cause its destruction. Quite a heavy backstory for the guy with the Hanson haircut.
Steiner is a fighter in his role, but does not adhere to leadership despite his protestations. He is the pincushion for jokes much more than he is for damage, which is a fun jab at a fighter’s self-importance (anyone who has played FFI knows how important they are too).
Freya is the noble lancer or dragoon. Her obsession with her lover’s disappearance leads her away from duty to country and toward shady associates like our main hero. In the end, this dereliction of duty is rewarded with tragedy threefold: the destruction of her homeland, the obliteration of Cleyra, and Sir Fratley’s amnesia.
Garnet is a white mage. She is an innocent princess, flitted to and fro between her mother Brahne via Steiner, her uncle Cid via Zidane and Tantalus, and Kuja. Everyone wishes to protect her so they may manipulate her or prevent her from being manipulated, so her internal journey is about finding autonomy.
Quina is a blue mage. You see, blue mages take abilities from monsters as their own. Quina does this by eating them. It’s a fun gag! If Quina isn’t on screen, people should be asking, “Where’s Quina?”
Amarant is a monk or black belt. His personality is a blackhole of martial prowess. He is consumed with the test of strength, and joins your party solely to understand the power of the monkey boy who bested him. He reads as a parody of the job.
Vivi, the black mage, is the one exception to “cliche” granted by the author of this book. And it’s true. Vivi is “clumsy and timid,” but there is no reason to believe this is not typical for black mages aside from one character in Final Fantasy IV. They cover themselves in thick robes, after all! FFIX cleverly takes this appearance and gives it a new spin; that is not a shroud but a stamp of their alienness, even more slaves of the Terrans than Zidane and Kuja. So then, Vivi’s achingly human personality is made to stand in contradistinction to the other black mages you encounter in FFIX, not from classic FF.
The antagonists of Final Fantasy IX are equally well-realized, vivid versions of previously used archetypes.
Garland is the megalomaniacal puppeteer. At this point, the implications of his machinations are so evil that any understandable logic they might include (to save his people, to preserve his home) is negated by the suffering they would cause. The book asks us to consider whether Garland is truly bad or if he “is simply making sure that the mission entrusted to him is carried out, even if that means destroying a planet and its inhabitants.” I think this makes one evil, irrevocably, and you can have a complex and interesting character who is unquestionably a shade of black, not gray.
Kuja is the flamboyant swaggerjack. He makes any other character trying to share the stage with him feel inadequate as his theme overpowers theirs like unseen dueling boomboxes.
The Iifa Tree is a subversion of general Japanese reverence for nature and an inversion of the sagely trees of other Japanese games (Ocarina of Time, Secret of Mana, etc.) The book highlights this as a “surprising choice.” The Iifa Tree, though, is invasive — imposed by an outside, imperial power into a non-native habitat, unlike something intimately connected with its habitat like you would see in Shintoism.
Necron is the surprise omnipotent jack-in-the-box you didn’t know was wound up in the background. It bursts on the scene to cast judgment, which you can only thwart with the right mix of spells and attacks. As a trope, Necron-style final bosses have only become more prominent in JRPGS (“find and kill god”) over time. But rather than a surprise, Necron is the most obvious finale possible for a game like FFIX. Necron is the very crystal at the heart of the series. His monologue about the anxious fear of death consuming the lives of the living and how this leads in turn to suffering is a judgment of the Terrans, with their suspended souls parasitically absorbing planets and inhabiting bodies that are not theirs simply to continue existing.
It is also a judgment of the entire series, as people suffer under the fear of death and unleash their anger against one another in order to obtain the crystals. As the book points out, Necron is integral as a final step in the main cast understanding their existence and triumphing over their fear of death.
The Assassination of FFIX?
There is a strange conclusion reached in the pages of this book — that Sakaguchi actually intended a much grimmer, fatalistic ending to FFIX. Slipped right beneath the game’s final scenes of jubilation is the fact that everyone pictured will die after the fusion of Gaia and Terra. Read this way, the entire game, its character arcs and grand humanistic themes, are subservient to the author’s real-life emotional turmoil. I think, without explicit acknowledgment from the game itself, such a reading is un-serious.
If the fusion of Gaia and Terra is genuinely inevitable despite the actions of our heroes defeating the very symbol of entropy in the Necron, then this is a real callback to the Greek love of morbid destiny (think Oedipus). But if there is no flashing sign pointing to this tragedy, this irony, etc., then there is no gut-wrenching moment for the audience and no reflection on mortal futility in the face of fate.
As interesting as this analysis might be (even if I disagree with it), it is also largely a throwaway passage, not a starting point for further discussion. Chuck it and forget it. YouTube fodder.
Unfortunately, much of this book’s goodwill is wasted on similarly unsupportable asides and basic misreadings of the game’s structural strengths.
As an example, here are two passages side by side. The author claims that “Unlike what he did for the previous games, Sakaguchi aimed less to point out the ills of modern society and instead looked to shed light on sensitive issues affecting people on a personal level”. This is a claim I already disagree with, given the last section of this essay, but then it is quickly followed up with “Kazuhiko Aoki laid out a story that shines a spotlight on the ills of human society (hunger for power, war, the depletion of natural resources, etc.)”. Despite this, somehow, “in FFIX, the plot is subsidiary to the characters.” This is a contradictory mess that is difficult to parse.
Another striking example to anyone who has played FFIX is the claim that “FFVII, with the arrival at the Mako reactor, and VIII, with taking the SeeD exam, had gotten us used to prologues that hit the ground running. In FFIX, the story takes some time to get rolling.” Normally, I can accept subjective claims like this.
The author here states it plainly as a fact, though, that Final Fantasy IX starts slow. The whole opening is set up in the scene-sequel dance of pacing. It gets rolling immediately with a breathless plot to kidnap a princess from her own castle. Even the break in the Evil Forest exists to throw our heroes together and then is punctuated with the visually impressive (for 1999) petrification scene. Then it’s off to the races against the Black Waltzes and toward Lindblum. I have a deep disagreement concerning FFIX’s pacing, to the point where I think it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the story. FFIX’s opening disc stands out as an RPG pacing masterclass.
This is not the strangest aside by a longshot though. That goes to the strained metaphor comparing Garnet to Moses. There are also a few paragraphs granted to the history of pirates, where the author claims that with the release of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag the pirate theme might become more prevalent in games. This book was published eight years after the release of Black Flag.
Finally, there is an extended attempt to tie FFIX to the industrial revolution, trampling over more nuanced explanations from a chapter earlier, substituting them with more shallow observations and textual analysis with uncomfortably thin supporting evidence. Is “most of Gaia is made up of a patchwork of peoples who still rely on a rural economy based on agriculture and artisanry to make a living”? Doubtful, and completely unsupported. Why would they choose to live in the rural areas where they are more susceptible to monster attacks? Dali exists because of the presence of the Alexandrian military, and everywhere else we see is an urban economy (Alexandria, Treno, Lindblum, Cleyra). Does Queen Brahne embody “a stereotypical version of totalitarian power”? We never see anything in a lore text, cutscene, or dialogue, that even hints at this.
So what does all of this mean? A book about a game should not be a book about all particular and contradictory interpretations of it. It should not be the space for half-formed fan theories and explicit themes to jostle for attention.
The Legend of Final Fantasy IX does not lack passion, but it could have used more focus. Otherwise, what is really being decrypted?
The Legend of Final Fantasy IX is an intriguing analytical work that buries its best creative readings under a mountain of disjointed fluff. The Third Editions’ house style feels restrictive in this and other volumes, showing its limits when pitched to a more specialized audience.
Still, Third Editions is an ambitious publisher worth a deep dive for any fan of game analysis. Even if The Legend of Final Fantasy IX has some misses, it made me think harder about one of my favorite games than I ever had to before.