[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introduction. The first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]
If I remember my gaming news articles correctly, Final Fantasy IX was consciously developed as a course correction. The previous Final Fantasies had lost the fantastical feel of the early games in favor of technological dystopias, and the series was growing increasingly somber and dark. So Square decided that Final Fantasy IX would be set in a medieval world and created a story with a lighter heart (although with some serious themes).
I was disappointed. In some odd way the Final Fantasy games and I had grown up together. But now I was a fresh college graduate with his first real job, and it was like my 'friend' had retreated back to the safety of elementary school.
Still, Final Fantasy was Final Fantasy, and so I bought FFIX on release day, hoping to quiet the skeptical voices in my head.
The opening did not reassure me.
The first three minutes are frankly bizarre - sedate rural county fair music and visages of characters that we don't know overlaid with ponderous quotes that are meaningless without context.
The opening cinematic proper starts three minutes in, and it begins a bit more promisingly with three hooded figures stranded in a tiny boat fighting against the raging ocean. But that's just a half-remembered memory; the cinematic cuts to the present where Princess Garnet is alone, preparing for a kingdom-wide birthday celebration. She's distracted by the sight of an airship flying against the rosy skies, and then we see glimpses of Zidane, the monkey-tailed thief, and Vivi, the wandering black mage with wide spotlight eyes. And then the cinematic is over.
This opening does a few things well. Show, not tell is the classroom maxim, and I think the cinematic performs well in detailing two characters. First, there's Garnet's loneliness and desire to experience the larger world. And then there's Vivi childish confusion, innocence, and wonder. Square's cinematic department does an excellent job with subtle motions and facial expression.
However, for me the opening falls short in another area. FFIX is the only Final Fantasy game I played whose opening I could not recall from memory. Why? I think it's because it fails to provide the tension and conflict needed for viewers to quickly invest themselves in the story. Start off with a bang!
The Rest of the Story
The rest of the story is also similarly unmemorable to me, so I'll just list the general arcs of the characters that I do remember:
Zidane: the archetypal good-hearted thief and main protagonist of the game. Has a secret connection with Kuja, the main villain of the game. He and Garnet become romantically involved. And then...
... honestly Zidane's just not that interesting; he feels like a character that could have been spit out by an extremely simple plot-generator program.
Vivi: one of many artificially created black mages constructed to be weapons of war with limited lifespans. But his 'programming' cannot overcome his essentially kind nature, and his creators try to hunt him down as a defective. This is a 'can-robots-become-real-people' story in a fantasy setting!
Vivi's arc is well-told and moving, and I can't quite explain why it didn't connect with me more. Thinking about it, I suspect it's because I played FFIX when I had just graduated from college and was trying to assert myself as a non-clueless adult who possessed complete mastery over the ways of the world (spoiler alert: I was pretty clueless). I think people are often most embarrassed by the things that they secretly identify with.
Garnet and Eiko: although Garnet is a princess, she is actually the adopted daughter of the evil queen who once destroyed a village of summoner mages and stole away the baby who would grow up to be Garnet. The only other survivor from the village is Eiko, who is an extremely temperamental young girl.
Although initially in conflict over a shared affection for Zidane, they each gradually realize that the other provides a missing piece of their lives: for Garnet, knowledge of her forgotten origins; and for Eiko, a sense of family that she never knew that she needed. And in FFIX's most dramatic cutscene, their shared understanding allows them to unleash a great power.
For me, the image of Garnet and Eiko with palms pressed against palms, sharing acceptance of themselves and each other, is the enduring image of the game. In my opinion it is their story that forms the emotional heart of Final Fantasy IX, not Zidane's. They should have been the central protagonists.