Thursday, June 20, 2024

20 Years of Final Fantasy X

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When Final Fantasy X released in Japan during the summer of 2001, I would not have called myself a Final Fantasy fan. I had played and loved Final Fantasy VI (or III as it was numbered here in the west). Final Fantasy VII was obviously a huge game but did not thrill me the way it thrilled others. I could not stand Final Fantasy VIII and would not play IX for years.

2001 had other games that demanded my attention. I bought a Playstation 2 specifically for Metal Gear Solid 2. Grand Theft Auto 3 ended up dominating my life for months. It was probably late 2002 when my brothers brought Final Fantasy X over and I finally tried it.

And thus was born a JRPG fan who has devoured every offline Final Fantasy since.

Final Fantasy X is generally very popular, but it can be divisive between old school and new school fans of the series. Some look at it as the last great Final Fantasy game before the many popular but controversial games to follow. Others blame it for the downfall of the series, and believe many of the flaws and stylistic decisions they dislike about future games began with X.

For me, it was the game that officially made me a fan of the series and genre. I no longer rank it as my favorite Final Fantasy, but it is still the most important entry to my RPG fandom.

final fantasy x yuna tidus

To this day, Final Fantasy X still has qualities that no other game has matched for me. The relationships between the characters, led by Yuna and Tidus’s romance, are among some of the most believable and emotionally effective I have ever experienced. The plot’s insistent focus on death, grief, and the legacies of parents hits emotional beats that will remain iconic forever. Its focus on Yevon and the corruption of organized religion is one of the harshest and most effective I know.

Everything ties back to Yuna and Tidus, and it is this cohesion between its two leads and everything else that makes the game work so well. The hardest thing to do in any story is to intertwine plot, character, and themes in a way that makes them indispensable to each other. This is even more difficult in video games, where you must weave in gameplay and level design as well.

Final Fantasy X accomplishes this…really easily. Or maybe I should say effectively, since there is nothing easy about how well the characters, world, plot, and gameplay meld into one cohesive package. Tidus works remarkably well as both his own character and the vehicle through which we learn about Spira. There are obviously plenty of memes and jokes out there about his laugh and his himbo jock attitude, but really it is to his credit, rather than a criticism. Tidus was a relatable, engaging, charismatic main character. He had his own personality, his own goals, his own fears and traumas, and an endpoint to his character arc independent of the player’s choices or beliefs.

He also worked brilliantly as the instigator who makes everyone around him realize the pure wrongness of Spira.

Tidus can be grating upon first exposure. I get it. He is a loud Chad who comes across as insensitive to the world around him. When he blindly violates religious traditions and cultural norms while having dumb dreams about how Yuna and Rikku both want to run away with him, it is easy to dislike him compared to other Final Fantasy mains. He is such a dumb jock sometimes and feels so out of place in the world around him.

Hopefully, as the game progresses, you come to realize why he is so out of place. Let me be clear; the sheer disrespect Tidus shows to the beliefs of Yevon (though varying by player choice) is kind of messed up, regardless of how wrong Yevonism turns out to be. Still, his disrespect is not just there for the rest of the crew around him, it is there for us, because Spira is a surreal world trapped in a spiral of death and grief that has frozen it in time for a thousand years.

Tidus gives voice to all the things the player thinks, which proves to be an effective way to engage the player with the world and Tidus himself. We do not feel wrong for questioning everything we see and hear about summoners, machina, Sin, and eventually the absolutely terrible cycle of sacrifice and hopelessness that comes with the Final Summoning. Tidus is there to say much of what we want to say and ask what we want to ask.

The other characters are forced to respond to him, which is a way of making them respond to us. This kind of personal connection between player and game is something few games I have ever played can compare with.

This made me care about the other characters more than I have with most other games I have played, and especially Tidus’s romantic interest and co-star, Yuna.

Yuna was a groundbreaking character for me. At that point, having a woman leading one of the biggest games ever was not exactly new, but it was still rare enough to take note of. Yuna stood out even more because of the type of lead woman she was. Final Fantasy had its share of warrior women. Lara Croft was a badass with guns. Jill and Claire from Resident Evil were as well. You had your share of women leading big games, but they generally fit within a mold.

Yuna broke that mold almost completely. She was a soft-spoken, sweet, and shy. Her contributions to combat involved almost pure healing and support. The very first scene she appears in establishes her as Tidus’s love interest. In so many games she would be the helpless heroine to save.

As you play through Final Fantasy X, you realize she is in fact the strongest character in the game. Seeing how this shy teen summoner girl carries the burdens of everyone around her and still manages to will herself towards a fate where she is meant to sacrifice herself was an eye-opening experience. Tidus may be our voice, but this is completely Yuna’s story. It is her journey to save Spira and her lead that everyone else takes, for better or worse.  

Her story was one of growing individualism, of female liberation and sexual awakening that rejects the overbearing expectations of society, complete with breaking away from the rigid expectations of an unhealthy church.

Most stories throughout my life, and especially stories in the gaming world, struggle to represent strong women protagonists in any way besides making them bloodthirsty badasses. And obviously those portrayals are fine. There is a place for bloodthirsty badass women in the gaming world and I would never say otherwise. Yuna still represented something different that opened my eyes a bit to the possibilities of who a video game protagonist could be.

Through them, and the rest of an amazing cast, I got a full sense of what kind of place Spira is, and it quickly became one of the most engaging video game settings of my entire life. It still is, 20 years later.

Spira was also something of a unique setting for me. It went beyond the colorful, tropical environments and cheerful soundtrack. Spira remains unique to me because of how…false the whole place is. Plenty of fiction settings are full of lies, but typically those lies come from a select group of leaders or one domineering personality using those lies to control a gullible populace. The story will then focus on exposing those lies to everyone else.

Final Fantasy X operated differently because the lie of Spira was a society-wide shared lie that everyone was aware of and perpetuated because they did not know what else to do. Everyone, including the summoners, know that using the Final Aeon to defeat Sin will never defeat the monster forever, but they keep pretending. Everyone, including the leaders of the Church of Yevon, know that the teachings are fake and following them will not fix anything, but they keep pretending. Everyone knows they are stuck in a society gone stagnant, trapped in a culture obsessed with death.

The world refuses to change or advance forward in any way.

When Sin lays waste to Kilika early in the game, that is the first time both the player and Tidus see this type of attack. It is a heartbreaking moment. Yet for Yuna, the rest of the party, and the people of Kilika themselves, this is almost routine. Yuna sends the dead, and by the next day everyone is taunting each other about blitzball games while the island is still torn to shreds.

The only time Sin’s level of destruction makes any real impact on anyone besides Tidus is when the Crusaders and Al Bhed try to use a machine weapon to defeat Sin, and it has that impact because the whole situation does not follow the agreed upon lie. The Crusaders and Al Bhed dared to try something differently.

If they had simply died when Sin decided to attack a town or something, it would have been business as usual. Since they dared to break the social contract everyone agreed upon when it came to dealing with/ignoring Sin, everyone handles the situation worse, because it was not supposed to happen.

Final Fantasy X never stops exploring the way grief can paralyze a person, or a society as a whole. Auron is literally dead but refuses to move on to the afterlife. The most powerful leader of the Yevon church does the same. Lulu struggles to move on from two summoners who failed to complete their journey, including one who died. Wakka cannot move past his brother’s death. Braska fought Sin because of his wife.

It made me think about grief in way I never had, and about how badly human beings can handle the idea of death. The story and world still stick with me after so many years because I’m not sure I have ever seen another game cover the topic this way. Many discuss themes about cycles of death, sure, but how many games present it this way, where everyone falls into this type of false cheeriness meant to normalize death on this scale, for a thousand years?

It is the kind of theme that seems prescient in the days of COVID-19. Really it was just a reflection of a core human fear that has always caused us to detach from widescale tragedy and normalize the cost of those tragedies.

This focus on death, and the effect it has on society, weaves its way into every single aspect of the game and leads to the absolute best worldbuilding of a Final Fantasy game. And yet that worldbuilding is fragile because it only took Tidus’s introduction to Spira to undo the whole social contract everyone agreed to. Without him, Yuna and her guardians never think twice about sacrificing her for a temporary reprieve from Sin. Seymour probably marries Yuna and becomes her Final Summon. Everything goes on as is.

Final Fantasy X did a remarkable balancing all these factors into one of the best, most memorable stories and worlds of the series.

Final Fantasy X-2 is, to say the least, a controversial sequel to the original game. Many do not like the drastic tonal shift and the direction of Yuna’s character and the world of Spira. The gravely serious tone of Final Fantasy X is shifted in favor of a silly, campy, popstar-style girl power game where Yuna, Rikku, and newcomer Paine travel the world treasure hunting. There is a more serious underlying motivation for Yuna in that she was inspired to hunt treasure spheres after seeing one of what looks like Tidus, but it’s a tonal shift from the grieving seriousness of X. X-2 is pure fun.

I understand why this direction was so divisive and why so many do not like it. Everything changes. The gameplay, style, tone, characterization, writing, every part of what defined X was changed for X-2.

Where I disagree with most, though, is that I do not think Final Fantasy X-2 was some great betrayal of the original game. Yes, they went in a silly direction. I think that silly direction fits just fine as a follow-up to the shoulder-crushing sorrow of Yuna’s first adventure.

Final Fantasy X-2 breaks Spira free from an existence of grief and sorrow. Its citizens are living truly free and hopeful for the first time in their lives. They have basically lost the identity that defined themselves and the world around them and no one truly knows who they or the world around them are anymore. The entirety of Spira is in a discovery process to find out who they are in a world without Sin and Yevon.

Is it really so strange for the aftermath of the end of grief to be a bit silly and wild and far different than when it was trapped in said grief?

Yuna is an even more extreme case than most others. Her father was the most recent High Summoner and her only ambition in life was to follow his example, which would mean the end of her life once Sin was (briefly) defeated. She literally had no concept of a world without Sin until the moment the party defeats Yunalesca in Final Fantasy X, and even then, could she really think about it? No, because she still needed to defeat Sin properly and then everything with Tidus happened.

X-2 is story of personal and societal discovery, and why not let that discovery be a bit goofy and wild? Why does a game like this need to be as serious as Final Fantasy X was when there is NOTHING in the lives of its characters that compares to the crushing hopelessness Sin represented? Why would they treat the world around them with the same graveness as they did before Yu Yevon’s final defeat?

So what if the game is a little “girly” and K-popish? What’s wrong with that? There are enough anecdotes of young girl gamers who loved X-2 to allow us to recognize it had appeal and meaning to plenty of fans. Hell, I was a teenager boy and I loved it.

I also must point out how most of the game remains rather dramatic. The first two chapters may revolve around silly treasure hunts and a rivalry with Leblanc, but they also plant all the seeds for the game’s real conflict, the conflict between the Youth League and New Yevon and how they fit into the Vegnagun threat. Chapter 3 shifts the narrative entirely to their fight and how to stop it. I love this conflict because it fits the directionless feel of Spira in a post-Sin world.

For all the talk about X-2 betraying Final Fantasy X, this felt like such a perfect natural reaction because of how lost everyone was. X-2 does a good job establishing why people flock to new factions to find new identities, and how those new identities come into conflict with each other. They make the right decision to build that conflict around Spira’s attempts to resolve their feelings towards Yevon, whether someone feels anger or still try to cling to the positive effect Yevon had on the world.

Really, the goofy treasure-hunting is never the actual focus of the game. By the time Chapter 3 rolls around, Yuna has returned to a familiar role as a central figure in bringing peace to Spira. At its best,  X-2 hits some strong emotional beats that do live up to Final Fantasy X’s example.

When all is said and done, X-2 even deals with Yuna resolving her feelings for Tidus. How depends on the percentage of the game you completed, but the game still deals with plenty of heavy issues that naturally branch off from the original story.

For all the strange spin-offs, prequels, and sequels in the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy X-2 stands as the best of them. I never even mentioned how excellent the actual gameplay is.

It is fascinating to look at how different Final Fantasy X was at release. It was the first voice-acted game in the series and the first to take the more directly linear approach that continued with other games afterwards. X-2 was the first direct sequel. It was the first one to break from the ATB battle system established with Final Fantasy IV, and every game since X has had a different combat system. X broke the mold of the series in ways that are sometimes for the better, and some for the worse.

As time has passed, X has only become more revered. I think it is the last game in the series that Final Fantasy fans overwhelmingly agree was great. Tidus and Yuna are two of the most iconic characters in video game history. Fan rankings tend to place the game somewhere in the top 3-4 of the series.

That is remarkable for a game that ended up as the test run for Square Enix to eventually change the series in ways that we are still arguing over.

Time has been kind to Final Fantasy X and its sequel. Having replayed them both about a month ago, I still find myself enjoying the games as much as I ever have. I still notice new things about the characters and world that I never thought about before. I still watch others play the game and hear new ideas and opinions about the experiences. Some for the first time, and some for the hundredth.

I think we will still be talking about Final Fantasy X in ten more years, as more new gamers continue to discover this masterpiece for the first time. I certainly will be. Few games in my life, of which I have played hundreds, have influenced my tastes the way Final Fantasy X did. 20 years later, I am still in wonder of it.

Images Courtesy of Square Enix

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