Jul 3, 2016

Thoughts on FFIX

Going forward, I'm planning on writing down my thoughts on books after I finish reading them. Shout out to Brad Feld for the inspiration. This first post is on Final Fantasy 9. No, it's not a book. But it served a similar purpose in my life over the past few weeks, so it gets a write up anyway.

FFIX was originally released for the PlayStation in 2000. Final Fantasy is the series that defined the JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game) genre, a type of video game that I spent a pretty good amount of my childhood engrossed in. In a series of greats, FFIX is often overlooked. It came out right before the PlayStation 2 was released with its new, shiny graphics capabilities. I'll be honest, I never did get very far in FFIX as a kid (I only ever beat FFV, FFVII, and FFX). While I've always been a fan of FFVII for the crown of "best of" in the series, there are a lot of people who hand that title to FFIX. Now I know what I was missing out on.

FFIX was ported over to mobile in February, providing a fantastic opportunity to dredge up some nostalgia for my childhood. I played it for the past few weeks in my downtime and got a real kick out of it. It was more engaging than most books I read and wasn't that hard to push through, even for some of the more boring parts. All in all, a great form of entertainment to break me away from my perpetual seriousness and concerns.

I've been an avid gamer for my whole life. A depressingly large number of my earliest memories are of playing games with my brothers and family: NES, SNES, DOS, and on and on. I stopped playing games for quite a while toward the tail end of high school after a full-year run in with World of Warcraft that threatened to capsize my progress in life. For about 6 years I would only allow myself to play free online games, on the thought that getting back into any "serious" game might re-trigger my dormant addiction.

Games re-entered my life in a meaningful way last year when I re-installed World of Warcraft and played with my wife, Uma. At the time, I was in the full grips of depression that had been triggered by the failure of our startup. I didn't realize it, but I was self-medicating with WoW. I've learned a bit more about it now, thanks in large-part to the lessons and research in SuperBetter. In short, the phenomenon of video games as an effective treatment for mental health issues is becoming a better understood fact. Uma was an absolute saint for playing with me and I'm not hooked on WoW anymore, but I've been a little less critical in my complete avoidance of games since. I played Pokemon for a short time (ah, those childhood memories) and have experimented with a few others. But FFIX is the first one that I've played from start to finish since my gaming rebirth.

FFIX touches on a number of deep themes that I didn't fully appreciate when first playing it at the age of 10. One of the most prevalent is the meaning of existence. Zidane and Vivi, two of the main characters, find out that they were engineered as weapons of war with the purpose of destroying the world. A good portion of the story is spent discovering their origins and what went "wrong" to result in them being moral, independent people. Many of the other characters also explore the meaning in their lives... Dagger is dedicated to her people as their queen, but what does that mean when her kingdom is destroyed? Steiner is sworn to defend the queen, but repeatedly fails in his duty. Does his life still have meaning?

There's another related theme around duty. In the cases of Steiner and Dagger, that duty is obvious and the choice is how to fulfill it. But what about Zidane? He is repeatedly thrust into a position of being one of the only people who can make a difference. But is that his responsibility? What if he decided to just run away and live his life quietly? It's a tough question to grapple with, and one that many struggle with in their real lives.

The story also deals with the complexity of friendship... how being a friend sometimes means never leaving someone behind, and other times means letting someone go. Of committing to always being there, but recognizing that there will be times that you let your friends down.

The resonance of the story's deep themes is aided in no small part by the beauty of the game's music and graphics. While the overall graphics of the game were largely overshadowed by the release of its older brother FFX on the new PlayStation 2 just months later, some of the cut scenes are positively gorgeous. The original request had called for about 20 musical pieces to fuel the game's ambiance, but the end-result was a masterpiece of 140 tracks by Japanese music legend Nobuo Uematsu.

In all, FFIX was a fantastic way to spend 30 hours of my life. Subconscious fed by perfect effort-reward dynamics, mind satisfied by fairly complex themes, and senses lulled by beautiful cinematics. As intellectually enriching as a book? Perhaps not. But something quite nice all the same.