In the earlier post on my favourite games of the generation, I led off with a reminiscence on Final Fantasy X. As luck would have it, Square Enix’s PS3 and PS Vita remake has been localised and went on pre-order recently in Korea, selling out in less than 3 minutes. It’s proof that the game has an enduring appeal that has diminished neither by time nor by the subsequent fall in the Final Fantasy brand power.
Every Final Fantasy game is divisive. You will never get everyone to agree on the merits of a given instalment, and FFX is no exception. Detractors focus on its linearity, lack of a world map and the uneven voice acting. The Tidus and Yuna laughing scene has become so infamous that it has tended to cloud our memories of the game’s achievements. I myself look back on FFX with immense fondness, thanks to the deeply felt and mature storyline that takes place in a gorgeously well realised world, capped by a genuinely moving finale.
FFX is, above all else, about resistance to dogma. The game is set in a world named Spira, a tropical paradise beneath which lurks a constant fear of mass destruction. This is represented by Sin, a monster of overwhelming size and power which appears every so many years to lay waste to the populace, and is only temporarily defeated by ‘Summoners’. Summoners are members of a religious order, the Church of Yevon, that dominates every aspect of life in Spira, from its demonisation of machinery to the fatalistic acceptance of Sin as an unavoidable part of existence. Shrouded in mystery and shielded from scrutiny by persecution and superstition, the Church’s main temple in Bevelle maintains a firm grip on the social and moral structure of the game’s world. As you progress further into FFX, it becomes apparent that the religion is actually a deeply complex conspiracy, born of a catastrophic conflict a thousand years earlier. Bevelle, the victors, chose to adopt the faith of the conquered, Zanarkand, whose leader in his final moments created both the dream city from which Tidus is literally thrown into the game’s world, as well as Sin and its cyclical tyranny. What was at first no doubt a baffled and frenzied effort to ease Spira’s sufferings from the monstrosity even for a while calcified into unquestioned tradition. With this the Church of Yevon convinced first the people and then itself that simply maintaining the status quo was achievement enough, that to delve any deeper into their troubles and cease the chain of sacrifice would result in Sin destroying all. Along the way, the Church is corrupted into practising things it forbade: the use of the hated machina and the un-sending of the dead are two of the most notable. The hypocrisy of Yevon is as much a foe as Sin, and the detail that Square works into the religion’s background and motivation is one of the highlights of the game.
FFX’s allusions to organised religion, particularly the Catholic church, aren’t hard to spot. Japanese games have often shown similar apathy – if not outright antipathy – which mirrors the country’s unique indifference to almost all non-native religions. The best-known examples are Xenogears, Final Fantasy Tactics and Chrono Trigger, all Square games, with the latter two featuring bloodcurdling transformation of nuns and priests into demons in places of worship. FFX has a more nuanced take on religion: the maesters, corrupt and duplicitous as they turn out to be, are not some gremlins in disguise. Rather, they are themselves prisoners trapped in the dogma they originally authored to enable a desperately needed peace. Their undoing wasn’t the pursuit of evil, but their failure to question it. When the forces of change, represented by Yuna and her protectors, arrive to seek solutions which may end Spira’s suffering once and for all, the Church of Yevon reacts by attempting their liquidation, but this is motivated as much by the concern that their failure could actually doom the world as the desire to protect its spiritual monopoly. FFX runs through this struggle slowly, methodically, and with a real sense of custom and ritual, by making the player a central part of the Summoner’s pilgrimage. We solve puzzles in a series of temples which unlock the Aeons that Yuna summons in battle. We visit locations that are beautiful even now, 13 years later, and witness the common people, faced with the horror of Sin, continuing to believe in the rites of Yevon. In one of FFX’s most celebrated scenes, Yuna performs a sending on the shore of a devastated seaside town. Yevon-ism is observed unwaveringly by everyone in the first half of the game, so that we become invested in the divine need to send spirits to the Farplane, to visit every temple and run through the laborious set pieces, and even put up with blitzball. We become conditioned to accept it when it is revealed that Yuna is to die at the end of the journey, because the pessimism of the belief system in Spira is so convincingly portrayed. The game expends so much time and care into this that when the lid starts to be lifted on Yevon’s truth the impact is extremely potent.
There’s a lot more good stuff in FFX. The Sphere Grid is accessible and enjoyable as far as upgrade systems go; the turn-based battles where the order of attackers is displayed in a vertical ticker tape on the right, while not exactly progressive, is transparent and allows the player to strategise confidently and at leisure. The game’s linearity is compensated for by some of the most hauntingly beautiful locations the Final Fantasy series has ever produced: the eery, poignant ruin of Zanarkand is run close by the exquisite otherworldliness of the Farplane and the grandeur of Bevelle’s architecture that is by turns Byzantine and Star Wars. FFX is arguably the last Final Fantasy game to date where the quality and pacing of the storytelling went hand in hand with the artistry of the environment design. What had made Final Fantasy such an important and beloved franchise were never just the pretty graphics or the battle system innovations. It was also about being in fascinating, and fascinatingly imperilled, worlds that were worth saving, with characters that had enough depth and colour to make spending a hundred hours in their company worthwhile. When they all came together, the results were not only the best games in the series, but some of the best in the genre. One thinks back to the superbly evocative Forgotten Capital in Final Fantasy VII, the scene of one of the defining events in gaming history. The infamy of Aerith’s death overshadows all the work that FFVII does to lead up to that moment – the coy and teasing introductions, the slow burning friendships, the expertly handled flashbacks to Cloud’s dark past, and especially the heart-tuggingly sweet diversion to the Gold Saucer. Almost the entirety of Disk 1 is devoted to this, and for a game renowned/decried for pioneering cut scene overuse, there is a surprisingly high level of player control over interactions between characters. So it is that when Cloud goes on a date with Aerith in the wooden monorail cart, we get to move the conversation along, and even choose which dialogue to say. Compare that with the early date scene between Snow and Serah in Final Fantasy XIII which is driven entirely by opulent cut-scene, and the implication is clear: the abundance of technology served to take the agency away from us, and with it our motivation to care. When FF characters attained visual and vocal fidelity of real people, the games saw fit to stop us from speaking and feeling for them.
Final Fantasy X was the game made on the precipice of this dichotomy. Voice acting was introduced for the first time, and the incredible pixel count that went into the faces of Tidus and Yuna went unmatched throughout the lifespan of sixth generation consoles. The prosaic charm of chibi in-game characters, temporarily cast aside in Final Fantasy VIII, was finally abandoned, never to return. FFX signalled the point where CG intruded – irretrievably, some might argue – into the aspects of the game its forebears allowed players to control, but enough tradition remained that it was still mostly limited to the big set pieces (like Tidus crashing Yuna’s wedding to Seymour). However, there was a sense of unease created by such visual opulence being used in aid of what was fundamentally a game of very conservative mechanics. FFX was the last mainline Final Fantasy to have random encounters, Square Enix choosing to decisively move away from them with the brilliant MMO-style fights in Final Fantasy XII and the slightly regressive yet highly refined battles in FFXIII. The transparent turn-based battle system made for stately combat, and the menu-based traversing of the overworld, robbing the player of the ability to roam and discover freely, was much mourned. That the unprecedented graphical muscle was being used for consolidation, not innovation, grated with many gamers, and this combined with some early missteps in the voice acting (more a dialogue problem than anything) to make FFX an easy target for cynicism. But all of this served to accentuate the story, and the characters that populated it. It really is one of the most sympathetic and layered narratives that the medium has produced, and even when the game’s conservatism gets a little too onerous, there’s so much beauty and intrigue in Spira and Yuna’s journey that the grind is worth it. Whatever ambivalence FFX inspires with its variety of technological firsts, its artistic merit is undeniable.