Critical Review is a series in which With a Terrible Fate’s video game analysts critically evaluate the work of themselves and other analysts, with the goal of advancing our collective understanding of video-game storytelling.
While many video games express messages to their players, it takes a special kind of game to trick its own player into defending a philosophical thesis without even realizing it.
(Spoilers ahead for Final Fantasy IX, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and Hamlet.)
As video games have developed a longer history and more complex language of storytelling, it’s become second-nature for them to represent themes and messages of the same sophistication we’d expect from a novel or film. Some games have gone even further by using their stories and worlds to represent specific philosophical worldviews, as I’ve argued Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does with respect to Plato’s metaphysics and Returnal does with respect to Freud’s philosophy of mind. Yet some games take advantage of their interactive nature to push this foundation of thematic message and philosophical representation one step further: games like Final Fantasy IX trick their players into defending complex philosophical theses through their in-game actions.
In this article, I want to show you how Final Fantasy IX builds upon the framework of the Platonic JRPG, which I outlined in my analysis of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Beyond just representing a progression from the material world of particulars to the abstract, more metaphysically real realm of Forms, Final Fantasy IX shows how a video-game story can represent a philosophical elenchus: a mode of inquiry popularized by Socrates (and otherwise known as the “Socratic method,” for this reason) in which one entity poses questions to another in order to challenge the latter entity’s views and ultimately arrive at the truth of the matter about a particular thesis or concept.
I begin by reviewing the Platonic model of JRPGs as represented in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Then, I build on this model to show how we can understand the course of the player’s journey through Final Fantasy IX—from the first performance of I Want to Be Your Canary, to Zidane and his friends’ journey across Gaia, to Zidane’s encounter with Terra, to the notoriously controversial confrontation with Necron, back to I Want to Be Your Canary—can be read as the player being led to defend the thesis that action is inherently more valuable than the risk of inauthenticity. The payoffs to this analysis, we’ll see, are (1) an understanding of Final Fantasy IX that unifies its emotional and metafictional elements (even, and especially, Necron) in a way that enhances the impact of both of those classes of storytelling languages rather than putting them at odds with one another, and (2) a new lens through which to interpret the messages of many other games as theses that players, without even consciously realizing it, are led to tacitly endorse and defend.
(A disclaimer: the approach in this analysis is to read Final Fantasy IX as a discrete text, without inference to authorial intent or integration of supplemental materials beyond the game itself.)
The Platonic Model of JRPGs
Final Fantasy IX showcases how video games can tell a story that empowers players not only to experience a Platonic worldview, but also to participate in defending a thesis within that worldview.
This mode of storytelling builds on the Platonic model of JRPGs that I developed in “The Real Architect of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is Plato.” That model claims that we can understand the typical trajectory of JRPG plots by interpreting them as a progression through Platonic philosophical inquiry in the spirit of the allegory of the cave:
The Platonic Model of JRPGs: the plots of JRPGs tend to evolve from particular relationships between characters to increasingly more abstract conflicts, to the point of confronting god-like entities and reinventing universes. These plots can be thematically unified by interpreting them as philosophical progress from living within the particulars of a world to contemplating the Forms that metaphysically determine the particulars of the world.
Such progress can be enriched through the presence of characters that play recognizable roles within a Platonic metaphysics. I argued that the Architect in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 functioned as Plato’s kind of demiurge, “a supremely good entity with complete knowledge of the Forms who ‘sculpts’ the chaos of the physical world using the Forms as a model”; I argued that the avatar, Rex (true to his name), undergoes the journey of a philosopher king in training, coming to be worthy of governing a world by learning about the nature of its metaphysical foundation. The 60- or even 80-hour plots of JRPGs can be really hard to synthesize into a coherent whole because the final act can seem so disconnected from the opening act; the Platonic model tells us that we can often render these stories coherent by reading them as sustained, methodical meditations on a particular philosophical concept.
This can give us a new way to understand and appreciate the plots of some of our favorite games, but it can also leave us wanting more. True to many Socratic dialogues, this model of JRPGs seems more focused on merely contemplating concepts rather than asserting and defending particular claims. That might seem like a shortcoming from both a storytelling perspective and a philosophical perspective: part of stories’ value comes from their capacity to represent and defend nuanced messages, and part of philosophy’s value comes from representing and defending nuanced theses. This calls to mind the frustration that many of Socrates’ interlocutors have with him in early Socratic dialogues (e.g., Euthyphro, Protagoras, Lysis), when he tears down their views on the definition of a particular concept without offering them a positive alternative definition of that concept. It’s all well and good to tell the story of a philosopher king coming to contemplate the Forms, or a story of a player coming to know an abstract concept, but without a strong claim attached to that concept, a story can feel a bit like we’ve been shown an intricate, sophisticated machine without the machine actually doing any work.
It turns out that video-game stories have all the tools they need to overcome this challenge: just like the Socratic dialogues gave Plato the tools he later used to represent and defend his positive views (through the mouthpiece of Socrates), the Platonic model of JRPGs lays the groundwork for players to defend complex, emotionally moving theses without even realizing it.
How Final Fantasy IX Tricks Its Player into Defending the Value of Artifice
How do you tell an emotionally moving story that centrally involves its audience defending a specific thesis?
It isn’t an easy question to answer. No doubt, video games tell interactive stories, and I’ve argued on With a Terrible Fate that the stories of many of the best games essentially refer to the agency of the player; all the same, stories in which the player’s actions are thrust into the spotlight have a bad reputation for undermining the player’s attachment to the characters and other events within the fiction. Think of something like the direct references to the player in The Stanley Parable, or the extension of Undertale’s story beyond the boundaries of the game: there’s a tension, I think, that makes a part of us tense up when we hear a story referred to as “metafictional,” or “meta,” because we assume that the story sacrifices the emotional content of its plot in favor of making ironic, or even glib, observations about the fact that the plot is a work of fiction being observed by an audience.
We shouldn’t be so quick to assume that audience involvement in a story necessarily interrupts our capacity to relate to its characters. Arts far older than video games have taught us that audiences can be involved in stories that foster deeply emotional connections to characters. Think of the theatrical traditions of Shakespeare: over 400 years ago, a playwright wrote a pantheon of stories that frequently featured soliloquies in which characters alone on stage expressed their inner thoughts to the audience, effectively drawing theatergoers into their fictional world—but I don’t imagine that many would argue, for instance, that Macbeth’s soliloquized confrontation of an imagined dagger detaches the audience from his character (Macbeth, Act II, Scene 1, Lines 34-65).
That’s not to say that video games are identical with their older storytelling cousin, the theater, but it makes a point that’s too often overlooked in the modern age of metafictionality: if the constraints of a storytelling medium are incorporated with the content of a story, then the audience can be involved in that story in a way that augments its other content rather than distracting from it. As a deeply Shakespearean video game, Final Fantasy IX is the ideal case study in how a game can achieve exactly this: it showcases a subtle, analytically coherent, five-step story structure through which a Platonic JRPG can lead its player through an elenchus and trick them into representing and defending a thesis that makes the story’s emotional content more, rather than less, salient.
At a high level, the five-step elenchus in Final Fantasy IX takes the following form:
- Frame the story in a way that introduces a core theme on the level of a story’s form rather than its content.
- Establish the story’s characters in a way that reinforces that core theme on the level of ordinary, literal human interactions.
- Embellish the story’s characters by applying the core theme to characters through metaphor or fantasy.
- Synthesize the characters’ literal and metaphorical content in a way that interrogates the core theme on a more foundational level than possible through solely the literal or the metaphorical.
- Unite the story’s framing with the synthetic thematic content of its characters to invite the audience into a direct confrontation with that theme in a way that marries the audience’s experience with the characters’ experience rather than privileging one at the expense of the other.
The basic premise of a Socratic elenchus, as we’ll be using it, is to continually prompt the refinement of a philosophical thesis by posing further questions or challenging scenarios each time an intermediary thesis is presented and defended. When Euthyphro claims that things are pious because they are loved by the gods, for example, Socrates leads Euthyphro through the scenario of various gods loving and hating a single thing in order to show that this claim cannot stand and the concept of piousness requires further analysis (Euthyphro 7a-8b). In each of the five steps of Final Fantasy IX’s elenchus, we’ll see, it poses the question: Why is it worth acting if to do so is to be inauthentic?
This is neither an esoteric nor an idle question: if you’ve ever felt paralyzed from the fear of making a choice that wouldn’t be true to your essential character, then you’ve been caught in the throes of the question at the heart of Final Fantasy IX’s elenchus. What’s remarkable is how the game uses its fictional structure to evoke in its players a more human, fulfilling answer to this question than may even be possible in the real world.
We’ll see that Final Fantasy IX is uniquely well-positioned to create player-involved meaning out of this mode of Platonic storytelling because the theme on which it tricks its player into taking a position essentially refers to the intersection of a story’s form and content: in effect, it uses the above form of fiction to lead the player into a defense of fiction’s intrinsic value.
Framing the Story: Canaries, Names, and Fictional Pretense
In the second scene of the second act of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark hits upon an idea to get his uncle to reveal that he killed Hamlet’s father: perhaps, Hamlet thinks, his uncle will visibly show his guilt if a similarly contrived murder is played out before him as a work of theater:
I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, Lines 617-623.)
This is a common storytelling mechanic within Shakrespearean plays: a character stages a play within their own play in order to achieve a certain end. Hamlet’s words specifically underscore a key concept in the process through which Final Fantasy IX frames its story and themes: an artificial scenario (like a play) can effect real-world change (like Claudius’ sense of guilt).
The artifice of theater frames Final Fantasy IX from its outset: like Hamlet’s players using a story for ulterior motives, Zidane and the Tantalus Theatre Troupe stage I Want to Be Your Canary as a pretense to kidnap Princess Garnet, only to blur identities and intentions when a disguised Garnet reveals that she wants to be kidnapped, and both she and Steiner get unwittingly roped into the stage production in the course of an escape on an airship that doubles as a stage.
This framing of Zidane & co.’s adventure as overtly theatrical recasts otherwise inert elements of the game’s setup as similarly theatrical:
- The act of the player naming party members—particularly after the runaway Garnet suggests that Zidane call (and the player name) her “Dagger”—suggests the player casting them in roles, similarly to Garnet being thrust into the role of Cornelia in the play.
- The player’s fixed perspective when navigating Final Fantasy IX’s world—often unable to see treasures and paths visible to the avatar—call to mind the artificial limitations of an audience’s perspective on a theatrical world, not unlike Queen Brahne being unable to identify Steiner and Garnet when they are roped into the play.
- The player’s inputs—particularly in updated versions of the game, where fundamental aspects of the story such as perceived speed of time, numeracy of enemies, and the party’s damage output can be modified at the player’s whim at any moment—are likened to the actions of a play’s director, particularly when viewed in relation to Zidane and Blank’s choreographed battle during the play, led by action commands input by the player for the express goal of earning the audience’s approval.
Notice with these data in view that I Want to Be Your Canary doesn’t just foreground that Final Fantasy IX’s plot will be heavily informed by theater and Shakespeare: it also invites the involvement of the player into the game’s theatrical framing. In such immediate, full-blown chaos brought about by an act of theater, an implicit question takes root, preparing to germinate and blossom in the story’s later movements:
Why is it worth acting if to do so is to be inauthentic?
Overt theater and direct focus on a game’s player are some of the clearest ways to point out totally artificial actions that seemingly would have no impact on the world beyond the bounds of their fiction. The first moment of Final Fantasy IX offers a simple, Shakespearean answer to that challenge: acting within inauthentic contexts, like a work of fiction, can bring about ulterior, real-world ends, like a kidnapping—or a player’s entertainment.
Establishing the Story’s Characters: Casting and Recasting Roles
The framing of Final Fantasy IX’s story poses the challenge of acting inauthentically and proposes a solution that operates on the level of the story’s form (its theatrical elements) rather than the level of its content (its characters’ lives). If this were the entirety of Final Fantasy IX’s philosophical message, the game wouldn’t have done much to get its player involved in an emotionally moving theme—let alone to get her unexpectedly endorsing and defending a thesis.
Thankfully, that was only the first step in Final Fantasy IX’s elenchus; its next step is to ingratiate the player with its characters by introducing their lives as a challenge to the first-level formulation of the thesis.
After the game’s introductory theatrical motions, we arrive at the idea that action within inauthentic contexts can bring about real-world, ulterior ends. After the end of the play and escape from Alexandria, however, the lives of Zidane and his cohort immediately complicate this idea: what about inauthentic roles that govern societal expectations for a person’s behavior? How can action be worthwhile in such a context?
This problem becomes a pressing one for many of the game’s main characters almost immediately on their adventure to Lindblum and the world(s) beyond:
- Zidane’s role as a thief in Tantalus, despite being the proximate cause of his involvement with Garnet, comes into conflict with his genuine connection to her.
- Steiner’s role as the captain of the Knights of Pluto and guardian of Garnet comes into conflict with Garnet’s desire to escape from Alexandria and step beyond her duties as princess.
- Most saliently, Garnet finds herself embedded in a world in which every role she assumes seems to come with its own set of behavioral standards that leave no conceptual space for her own agency.
Garnet is the most direct challenge to the first-level formulation of Final Fantasys IX’s thesis: even after she uses the artifice of the play and kidnapping as a means of escape from Alexandria to try to overcome the corruption of Queen Brahne, she later discovers in Lindblum that her uncle, Cid, orchestrated her theatrical kidnapping for that exact same reason: Garnet’s attempt to seize control and overcome her role had already been determined by somebody else. When she asks Zidane whether she was convincing in I Want to Be Your Canary, Zidane’s impulse is to compare her to Ruby, the previous actress in Cornelia’s role, rather than seeing her on her own terms; her “disguise” once outside the purview of the castle is molded in the image of Zidane, with him encouraging her to speak “more casual[ly,] [l]ike [him],” her suggested “disguise” name literally being inspired by one of Zidane’s tools, his dagger.
Garnet’s paralysis in the face of a world that perpetually traps her in roles exemplifies how quickly the story takes the same considerations present in its formal framing and distills them to the human level of its characters: even as the player names Garnet and moves the party forward in ways consistent with the theatrical direction we considered in the last section, she is led by the characters’ interactions and internal reflections to consider the extent to which the characters lack agency in their own lives, regardless of how ardently the player pushes their storylines forward.
Garnet is also the most robust exemplar for how Final Fantasy IX’s storytelling moves us beyond this challenge of the artifice of roles. Atop Lindblum’s castle, as she reflects on her feelings of helplessness in the face of Cid’s role in her kidnapping, Garnet sings a song that comforts her in times of sadness and loneliness: a song from Madain Sari, reflecting her forgotten homeland and nature as a summoner. Even before Garnet remembers her origins beyond Alexandria, the song provides her with a subconscious tether to her identity: something more foundational to her character than any role imposed on her or any set of behaviors attached to such a role.
As Garnet and her new friends find themselves subsumed by their roles—like the stage roles of I Want to Be Your Canary, but without the separability of fiction—the pressing question reemerges, now underscoring how easy it is to adopt a real-world persona that alienates oneself from one’s genuine intentions:
Why is it worth acting if to do so is to be inauthentic?
Garnet’s song, echoed in Steiner’s unyielding commitment to honor and Zidane’s commitment to Garnet, posits a new thesis in response: people have essential, authentic natures, and roles that bring about inauthentic behavior can still empower those underlying, authentic natures in the long run. Garnet’s disguise as Dagger ultimately leads her back to Madain Sari and her deep past; Zidane’s thievery and roguish facade bring him closer to Garnet; Steiner’s shifting focuses on service to Alexandria, Garnet, and Beatrix reinforce his nature as a knight, more foundational to his identity than whomever he happens to be serving at a given moment.
Embellishing the Story’s Characters: Existence as Artifice
After the focus on artifice in Final Fantasy IX’s framing, the story promptly elevates those questions of artifice to the deeply relatable human matters of characters grappling with their identity. This shift from the merely theatrical to realistic conflicts, with which the player can empathize, imbues the fiction’s abstract mode of presentation with the emotional content of compelling characters which the player comes to know intimately. This puts the player in a better position to remain attached to the characters and concerned with their fates as the fiction abstracts away from the particulars of human lives to more metaphorical conflicts over the nature of one’s existence.
In the face of a world that subsumes its characters in roles, the characters imply that people have an essence that can be empowered in the long run even through inauthentic role-based behavior. But the elenchus pushes against this conclusion by presenting us with the plight of characters that become even more piercingly human by virtue of their fantasy elements: how is it possible to act authentically if the essence of one’s existence is inauthentic, or artificial?
Vivi is one of the most beloved characters in the Final Fantasy corpus, and for good reason: diminutive and manufactured though he may be, he is also one of the most genuine, introspective, compassionate party members you could imagine. Vivi’s personal journey throughout Final Fantasy IX is the ideal case study for this moment in the game’s elenchus: in contrast to the human struggle with inauthentic roles, he grapples with the more foundational, existential challenge of understanding his artificial nature as a (prototype) black mage, all while watching the variegated fates of other black mages unfold.
Over the course of the game, Vivi & co. discover that the black mages were created by Kuja from the recycled souls distributed by the Iifa Tree as Mist. Over time, some of those “dolls” gained sentience, escaping from Kuja and Alexandria to start a village of their own on the Outer Continent. They have the air about them of facsimiles of facsimiles: as Black Mage No. 288 tells Zidane after refugee Genomes move from Bran Bal to Black Mage Village, “Kuja knew how Genomes were made. He manufactured [the black mages] based on that knowledge.” In the throes of their existence’s artificial nature—designed by an artificial being to wreak havoc in a theatrical, genocidal plot he explicitly calls a “play”—the black mages grapple with the meaning of being an agent in the world:
- They struggle to understand death as a form of inevitable, irreversible “stopping” and try to learn how to live in the face of this reality.
- They do their best to emulate society by modeling human behaviors, setting up shops in their village without understanding the meaning of commerce.
- Black Waltz No. 3 clings tragically to the purpose he’s claimed as his own, to the point of total annihilation.
As he encounters his various “siblings,” Vivi gradually comes to terms with his own identity: repeatedly called a “puppet” or a “weapon,” forced to recognize that he will eventually “stop,” he realizes that he needs to forge his own essence in the absence of a naturally intrinsic essence. He sees what happens when those who forge their own essence fail, too: Black Waltz No. 3 develops a sense of self only to further enslave himself by insisting on being a killing machine that serves Alexandria of his own volition; perhaps even more tragically, Kuja tricks the sentient, free black mages into serving him again by playing on their newfound fear of death, making empty promises to extend their lifespan. An artificial existence, without a firm essence on which to rely, leads back to servitude and inauthenticity again and again.
Vivi finds his solution in a rejection of the underlying causes that brought so much pain to him and the black mages. At the Iifa Tree, Soulcage reveals the nature of Mist’s role in the creation of black mages to the party and gives Vivi an existential challenge: “Defeat me, and no more Mist will flow. And then no more weapons like this puppet will be made. Answer me, puppet. Do you deny your very birth?” After a long pause, Vivi replies: “No more! […] I won’t let you make any more instruments of murder!” Later, when Kuja plays on the sentient black mages’ fear of death to trick them into following him, Vivi declares his hatred of Kuja to No. 288, who stayed behind in Black Mage Village:
…I was really confused when my grandpa died. He told me, ‘Vivi, no need be sad.’ So I told myself, I can’t be sad. That’s why I felt confused again when I heard that everyone was stopping around him. I don’t know what to do or what to feel… But when I saw Dagger crying when her mom died, I wasn’t confused anymore. I was sad… If I were just a puppet, I never would have felt that way. Mr. 288…we aren’t puppets. I know we aren’t. …I hate him. I hate Kuja!!! He’s turning everyone into puppets just to kill people!!! If it weren’t for him, I know everyone would understand someday. It’s not fair…
In the face of an intrinsically artificial existence, Vivi is able to find and claim a purpose of his own: to liberate the black mages, hating those who enslaved them and ultimately creating children who can live as black mages without the burdens of servitude.
Soulcage, Black Waltz 3, Kuja, and many others barrage Vivi with our guiding question, almost verbatim:
Why is it worth acting if to do so is to be inauthentic?
In Vivi’s personal growth from a prototype into a person, we get a new answer: people have the ability to choose a guiding purpose for their life, which can lend authenticity to their projects and broader trajectory even if their individual actions are inauthentic. Maybe an essential nature or state of being can be manufactured or artificial, but a consciously chosen purpose informing one’s path is more resilient to inauthenticity precisely because it’s chosen with intentionality: think of the difference between Steiner’s essential attachment to loyalty (a state of being) versus his choice to build a life with Beatrix (an intentional choice following the total accident of a misinterpreted letter).
Synthesizing the Characters: The Purpose-Driven Game
“He rejects the meaning of his own existence and tries to assert his own individuality.”
—Garland, speaking with Zidane about Kuja in Pandemonium
Alone, a story about theatrical framing, a story about human interest, or a metaphorical tale of synthetic life would be interesting but relatively homogeneous in thematic approach. Taken together as a methodically developed elenchus, though, these distinct approaches to thematic content set the stage for a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
So far, we’ve seen Final Fantasy IX’s elenchus poses increasingly abstract challenges to core theses defending action in the face of inauthenticity, moving from the formal content of the story’s framing to the emotional content of relatable characters before applying more metaphorical concepts, such as artificial creation, to further probe those characters. These preliminaries have given the player a sophisticated, emotionally resonant canvas on which to explore the philosophical content intrinsic to the game; now, the task is to abstract away from those characters and back to the story’s framing in a way that involves the player’s agency, getting them to defend a thesis without losing touch with the emotional value of the characters in the process. This takes place through two steps: first, unifying the literal and metaphorical content of the game’s characters to interrogate their nature more foundationally without losing sight of their pathos, before returning to the story’s frame to invite the player into this synthetic layer of character relations.
When Final Fantasy IX’s fiction raises the challenge of characters with a manufactured essence, Vivi exemplifies the response that people can choose a purpose that intentionally and authentically guides their lives, despite artifice pertaining to specific actions or their essential nature. The elenchus isn’t yet satisfied, pressing further: how can one set an authentic purpose for one’s life if one’s heritage burdens them with a prior purpose that conflicts with one’s interests?
This is the level on which the game’s metaphysics start to matter. When the characters have determined that they can chart authentic purposes for themselves, it turns out that their entire world is at the mercy of a parasitic “shadow” world, quietly repurposing its most foundational sources for its own ends. The war and turmoil of Alexandria and Gaia are really the echoes of Kuja and Garland wrestling with the will of Terra: a dying planet that tried to revive itself by fusing with Gaia, only to fail because of the presence of life on Gaia, thereby incompletely binding the two together—a decimated Terra, bereft of civilization with its people’s souls in stasis, and a Gaia gradually developing civilization and the power of eidolons.
Garland’s own life was dictated by the souls of Terra: to “drain” Gaia of its native souls in order to fully realize the dying Terra’s fusion with the vibrant Gaia, and to manufacture Genomes—soulless shells, not dissimilar to Black Mages—to house Terran souls once Terra successfully subsumes Gaia and those souls can be released from storage. To do this, he created the Iifa Tree to filter Gaian souls out of their natural cycle of death and rebirth on Gaia, generating Mist as a byproduct of that process—and he created Kuja, Zidane, and Mikoto, strong-willed Genomes with actual souls, to sew chaos and war on Gaia, accelerating that process.
Notice that what seems like a wildly unexpected, metaphysically fanciful plot twist has done something simple and subtle in the context of Final Fantasy IX’s elenchus: the relationship between Gaia and Terra has reintroduced the theatrical considerations from the very beginning of the story’s frame without returning from the story’s substance to its frame. This is what allows the story to start moving toward the player’s direct involvement without thereby becoming self-consciously “meta” or fourth-wall breaking. Remember that the very first level of the elenchus—the I Want to Be Your Canary level—offered the view that action within inauthentic contexts, like a play, can bring about real-world, ulterior ends. Through this lens, Garland ends up looking suspiciously like Baku, leader of the Tantalus Theater Troupe: the intercession of Kuja, the war-waging of Alexandria, and even the path of Zidane are elements of plot in a drama he’s orchestrated with a totally ulterior motive for the sake of a world beyond that drama. We return to the philosophical substance of the nature of fiction, but we do so in a way that retains the integrity of our interest in the fiction instead of breaking the fourth wall—even when Garland goes so far as to observe his drama from the observation deck of a ship with an eye on its undercarriage, the perfect image of a director watching events unfold from offstage.
The goals of Terra illustrate that lives can be molded with an intrinsic purpose that seemingly supersedes any intention that an entity could consciously set for itself. Even after Kuja tries to free himself from his destiny as a Genome—even after he goes so far as to kill his creator and absorb the souls of others who weren’t beholden to his purpose—Kuja’s ultimate anxieties that determine his fate aren’t so much of death per se, as is the case with the black mages, but rather of the inescapable limitations that Garland imposed on his existence. After Garland reveals his limited nature to him, Kuja rails hysterically against the telic irony of having a shorter lifespan than the world he was designed to destroy:
Zidane, isn’t it hilarious!? I’ll die just like the black mages I so despise! I single-handedly brought chaos unto Gaia, but in the end, I’m nothing but a worthless doll!
The revelation of Zidane’s nature as a special Genome—Kuja’s successor, and Garland’s “Angel of Death”—is a subversive irony that would feel like BioShock if the elenchus of Final Fantasy IX didn’t avoid overt metafictionality in the way we just defined. Even though the player initially recognized her capacity to name Zidane and direct his actions, she happily fades into the background as Zidane routinely asserts his individuality, helping his friends, falling in love with Garnet, and setting off on adventures based on sheer passion rather than considered reasons belonging to himself or anyone else. Yet Garland reveals that no matter how spontaneous Zidane might have seemed, his entire existence was painstakingly designed to serve a purpose totally orthogonal to the identity he’s cultivated on Gaia. We begin to see Zidane as “nothing but a worthless doll” at the same moment that Zidane starts to fear this Terra-centric directive in himself, with Garland shattering his identity and leaving him to become “a regular Genome.”
The broken Zidane makes the challenge of this level of the elenchus viscerally human: when you realize that your existence is predicated upon the fulfillment of a goal to which you have no personal attachment, how can you even find the will to try to act authentically? The mechanics of the game reinforce this: in the place of a Zidane who had gained the mobility to travel all of Gaia at the player’s will, we find instead, at the bottom of Pandemonium, a crushed Genomic Zidane who can only move down a single hallway, rejecting input from both the player and the rest of the party in favor of simply killing whatever creatures he encounters—Garland’s Angel of Death, manifested.
Zidane’s path back to identity from his first confrontation with Garland also illustrates the reply to this next challenge within the elenchus: Zidane’s friends remind a vacant Zidane of their relationships with him and what they owe to each other. After everyone else confronts him to a similar effect, Garnet ultimately faces him and insists: “You’ve always protected us. But you still don’t understand that we looked out for you, too! We watched your back while you watched ours. And we believed in you the same way you believed in us! Just like you protected us… We want to protect you.”
The common understanding of what happens here seems to be that Garland fails at reverting Zidane to a regular, soulless Genome, but we have another interpretive option available that coheres very nicely with the rest of the elenchus: the stark change in Zidane’s character after his apparent loss of self seems to suggest that he really might have lost his soul thanks to Garland, only to find that his friends are able to reconstitute it by invoking their memories and connections to him. This isn’t such an outlandish idea in light of the facts that (1) souls are naturally returned to crystals and cycled back to bodies within Final Fantasy IX’s metaphysics already, (2) black mages seem to indicate that empty shells can gain soul-like sentience, and (3) Garland tells Zidane that he has the destiny, power, position, and motive “to live among the stars for all eternity,” implying a duration to his soul, even when banished from his body, that someone Kuja lacks.
Seen in this light, Zidane’s very soul is able to be restored because of his connections to his friends and the fact that they have attachments and obligations to each other that bind them authentically regardless of any ultimate purpose for which they were designed. This is half of a full identity thesis: on the other side, we have the quietly central storytelling element of Trance, allowing characters to access deeper, more essential power through (if Steiner and Mogster, the most reliable sources on the topic, are to be believed) emotional response to “hostility,” triggering a deeper, involuntary access to the self through antagonistic forces.
Alone in the abyss of Pandemonium, Zidane might as well be posing our very mantra as soliloquy:
Why is it worth acting if to do so is to be inauthentic?
Yet as soon as we stop reflecting inwardly, as Zidane does, our friends and enemies both offer us a new answer to move the elenchus onward: relating to agents beyond oneself, either positively or negatively, can create obligations that inhere to our sense of self and require us to act in ways that, by virtue of honoring those relationships, are authentic. Remember that we arrived at the puzzle in this part of the elenchus by positing that an agent is faced with an ultimate purpose to which they cannot relate, rendering their actions inauthentic; because that purpose, ex hypothesi, is unrelated to the agent, persistent obligations to others that do relate to the agent can take priority over that purpose and thereby create opportunities to act authentically. Even if an agent is consistently and entirely inauthentic with respect to the reason for which they were created, this network of bonds can make their actions locally and globally meaningful. It gives us an illuminating lens through which to read Mikoto’s final, heartwarmingly paradoxical expression of gratitude to Kuja:
Kuja… What you did was wrong… But you gave us all one thing… Hope… We were all created for the wrong reason, but you alone defied our fate. We do not want to forget this. We want your memory to live on forever… …to remind us that we were not created for the wrong reason—that our life has meaning.
Uniting Framing and Content: Rejection of Necron and Assertion of Value
“I’ll note you in my book of memory”
—Plantagenet, Henry VI Part 1, Act II, Scene 4, Line 102
We’ve reached the final phase of Final Fantasy IX’s elenchus: as with the conclusions of other Platonic JRPGs, like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, we’re ready to abstract away from the material world of the fiction and contemplate the metaphysical Forms grounding that world. The difference in this case is that, by the time the player has reached and contemplated those Forms, she’ll realize that she’s been led to assert and defend the final thesis at the core of Zidane & co.’s philosophical journey through Gaia and Terra.
The arrival of Necron and his metaphysical concerns are prefigured in Garland’s meditations on life and death. When Zidane confronts him for the last time, Garland reflects that life requires death in order to survive, sustaining itself at the cost of others. After Zidane and his friends find that positive and negative relationships with others can generate obligations that make authentic action possible, Garland’s meditations invoke the specter of one final challenge in the elenchus: how is any kind of authenticity possible when the existence of the concept of life entails the existence of the concept of its negation, death?
While Garland seems to grasp a version of this question by virtue of his position as Terra’s “overseer,” he also illustrates that the metaphysics of a universe can’t be challenged effectively from within that world. Garland’s solution to the conceptual relationship between life and death is to try to create “a world in which life and death become one”: presumably, this refers to his plan to fully merge Terra with Gaia such that Gaia’s crystal—from which souls and their memory emanate and to which they return, in a planet’s natural cycle—purely cycles Terran souls with total efficiency. This would merge life with death by allowing memories and identity to move with perfect fidelity through the crystal, allowing Terran souls to return to a Genome, back to “life,” as soon as death occurs.
Garland’s plan couldn’t overcome the challenge of life entailing death: to merge the two concepts still implies the existence of both concepts, and there’s no clear sense in which a maximally efficient crystal cycle, augmented by Genomes, could truly overcome the concept of death; if anything, it would only be more hypocritical to mitigate the impact of death while still recognizing its inevitability. An attempt to augment the value of existence in this way would turn life into a mere disguise that death wears, persisting in an even less authentic state than one who simply embraces both life and death fully. It’s the grotesque self-deception we see manifest in the aptly named Deathguise: awfully close to a portmanteau of “death” and “disguise,” invoked by Kuja from the crystal, Gaia’s source of life, with the sole purpose of propagating death.
Trance Kuja goes even less distance toward resolving this tension than Garland, calling to mind Macbeth’s image of “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5, Lines 23-25). He tries to transcend the limitations of his design by artificially bringing about Trance using the souls of others, rather than fostering genuine connections; unable to overcome the limitations Garland placed on his lifespan, he tries to simply make the death of the world coincide with his own death as a way of asserting his value. Yet Kuja’s anxieties about the limitations of his authentic nature tragically pull him backward in that final battle with him, changing him from a mastermind ponificating about a play whose plot he was architecting into a frenetic actor playing out a desperate, final scene before the “audience” of Zidane and his friends, begging for someone, anyone, to bear witness to his strutting.
In the end, the only entity that can appropriately interrogate and abnegate the universe on the level of its Forms is an entity that’s able to evaluate and manipulate that universe from outside of it: Necron, the “darkness of eternity” that exists beyond the metaphysical limits of Gaia, Terra, and the crystals that ground them. He defines his sole purpose as “return[ing] everything back to the zero world […] a world of nothing [in which] fear does not exist.”
Like Garland, Necron realizes that the concept of life implies the concept of an inevitable transition to death and argues that life becomes an exercise in inauthenticity by virtue of being burdened by its conceptual connection to death: a burden that evolves from anxiety, to fear, to anger, to hate, to suffering. That same notion of interconnectedness that made space for the possibility of authentic action at the previous stage of the elenchus now makes authenticity seem metaphysically impossible: the mere existence of Forms in an evolving world threaten any form of material existence with its negation, as with the threat of death that looms over the “poor player,” Kuja.
Theatrically, Necron is similar to a deus ex machina. In the times of Socrates, Greek playwrights such as Sophocles would often resolve the plots of their plays by introducing a god, lowered in “from the sky” by a crane and imposing divine intervention on the story—literally a “god from the machine.” Ontologically, Necron is very much this kind of unannounced “god” appearing from nowhere to intervene on the plot, yet functionally, he’s doing the virtual opposite of a deus ex machina: rather than resolving the plot from nowhere, he presents a final challenge to the plot, threatening not only to annihilate the protagonists but also to annihilate the entire fictional world that constitutes the story of Final Fantasy IX. He returns the game’s storytelling from the metaphorically theatrical to the literally theatrical, imposing upon Zidane and his friends a theater-in-the-round as their final battlefield, encircling them in a cylinder of eyes as if to demonstrate that his is the metaphysically external perspective that defines the value, or lack thereof, in the story and existence of these characters—not the player’s.
Necron is not the kind of thing that can be destroyed by characters like Zidane, and he tells Zidane as much: as their battle draws to a close, he says, “I am eternal… …as long as there is life and death.” Yet Necron is destroyed: there doesn’t appear to be any sense in which the world lives under threat of his return after Zidane’s confrontation with him in “the final dimension.” How can we resolve this seeming paradox?
A clue to the resolution lies in Zidane’s fierce assertion in the face of Necron: “Even if we lose, it doesn’t matter… Our memories will live on inside others.” The antagonistic “deus ex machina” of Necron finds his match in another entity that fills the role of deus ex machina in the more traditional sense of the term: the player. By virtue of having played the game—directing Zidane through his journey, emotionally investing in the characters, and literally reifying the memory of their journey with those characters through the game’s save mechanics—the player has already implicitly acted in opposition to Necron. It’s in the final battle against Necron that the player translates those actions into an assertion of meaning in the final level of the elenchus: where Necron poses the question,
Why is it worth acting if to do so is to be inauthentic?
the player’s actions throughout the game, culminating in the defeat of Necron, claim that intrinsically inauthentic or transient concepts can create authentic value for those who fully engage with them regardless of that inauthenticity.
The seeming non sequitur of Necron becomes a logical, emotionally cogent climax of the overall story precisely by connecting it with the story’s theatrical frame and the journey of the player from the game’s beginning to that final battle. In essence, Necron is a metaphysical coda to the very first level of Final Fantasy IX’s elenchus: where that first level challenged the superficial value of fiction, Necron, with his external perspective on the universe, poses the Formal question of the extent to which reality is able to escape the artifice of fictions such as I Want to Be Your Canary. Without Necron being the kind of thing that can die in the world of the fiction, the player, on an existential par with him, can reflect on the deep emotional attachment she’s cultivated with these fictional characters over the course of the story—and the previous levels of the elenchus—to find within her actions and attachment to Final Fantasy IX an inherent refutation of Necron.
Without ever directly calling out the player or breaking its fourth wall, Final Fantasy IX lures its player into defending a philosophical view, the culmination of its story, by pulling its story’s frame out to land on the kind of metaphysical entity that only the gamer of a video game could adequately address.
“She Shall Appear If I Only Believe”
The elenchus ultimately returns us to where we began with I Want to Be Your Canary, armed with a new perspective on the value of fiction. With the player having defended the capacity to derive meaning from artificial contexts such as fiction, the stage is set for a reimagining of a play that merges the fictional scenario of a disguised Marcus with the real scenario of Zidane, playing Marcus, asserting and enacting his lasting love for Garnet—or Dagger. When the fictional Marcus awaits Cornelia, fearing she’s decided not to run away with him after all, he reaffirms, in soliloquy, his belief in the strength of their love.
Could she have betrayed me? Nay, ne’er would my love speak false. I must have faith! She shall appear if I only believe!
In this moment of a fictional act of faith, assertion of belief, Marcus casts off his cloak and the veneer of fiction to reveal Zidane calling out to Garnet, begging her to reunite with him as Dagger.
This final act of fiction bringing about authentic meaning is the most natural possible outcome of the player’s victory in the elenchus that came before: when fiction and artifice are recognized as media that bring about real value despite being inherently inauthentic, the path is opened for fiction to bring about everything from deep emotional realities to the unlikeliest of reunions between those who are inextricably bound to each other by fiction, reality, disguise, and essential identity alike. It’s particularly telling in the context of this philosophical argument that after completing the game, selecting “Continue” on the title screen returns the story to this reprise of I Want to Be Your Canary, as if to complete the player’s rejection of Necron by shaping the only possible conclusion of the story as a meaningful, fully authentic act of artificial theater.
JRPGs’ epic tales are naturally suited to Platonically inspired arcs, but Final Fantasy IX shows us that they can push this Platonic framework even further: an interactive story that not only abstracts to the level of metaphysics but also pushes a single thread of inquiry at each level of abstraction can tell a story in which the player ends up endorsing a philosophical thesis by virtue of her connection to the story, rather than in spite of it. In the end, the gift of Garnet, Vivi, Zidane, Kuja, Garland, and even Necron is the possibility of an internally coherent work of fiction that simultaneously makes its audience the bearer and recipient of its core message.
- Thanks to Adam Bierstedt, Dan Hughes, and Nathan Randall for discussion of the initial ideas underpinning this analysis. ↑
- While I’m not a Japanese scholar, Dan Hughes, in conversation, has suggested that Deathguise’s Japanese name—デスゲイズ, or Desugeizu—may also be a pun on the English “disguise.” ↑
- Thanks to Adam Bierstedt for discussion relating to this point. ↑
- This is, at least, the case in the HD remaster of Final Fantasy IX, available for the PlayStation 4. ↑
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