Final Fantasy IX was indisputably the most formative game of my life. My brother and I bought it when it first came out. Unfortunately, we had quite an unpredictable set of discs, which meant that the game would constantly crash during the CGI cut scenes. I remember when this first happened (around 3am – when 12 year old me should have been asleep). I crawled over to the blank screen of my TV in horror, tears in my eyes, pleading with the unresponsive disc to go on. I even remember which cut scene it was: the one just after you receive Ramuh (our PS1 could just not handle the glass flying everywhere). Thankfully, it did restart after a few minutes.
The reason I am using a fancy term like “archives of memory” is less about my own memories of the game and more about the way mythology and memories of past civilizations are threaded through the Final Fantasy games. From an exploration of time in FFVIII to the disease of forgetfulness in Crystal Chronicles, many of the later games are underpinned by issues of time and memory. FFIX in particular, as a retrospective of the entire series up to that point, dramatizes history and memory in a variety of ways which seem to alert the player that Square was saying “goodbye” to the old formula and a bygone era. It is a retrospective which signals the end of an era, a whimsical foray into the histories of one of the world’s most beloved RPG series. FFIX is an archive of the series, and its near obsessional dealings with memory and archives emphasizes that.
Firstly, of all the Final Fantasy games, I think that FFIX has some of the most mysterious mythologies and hidden histories. The initial question of “what is Vivi?” (or should we say “who?”) proceeds onto the the nature of magic, summoners and summoning… these are questions that are actually deeply explored throughout the game, through locations and architecture as well as through conversations between characters – even music. Princess Garnet’s song recurs and gains meaning throughout the game as we learn more about her lineage and her summoner ability. When we find the mysterious Madain Sari ruins, and discover her connection to it, her song replays.
Every location seems partially lost or forgotten – disconnected from other civilizations. What we have are remnants of the past, layers which we, as players, have to discover and connect with other knowledge through exploration of the world and universe.
The “faces on the wall” at Oeilvert in Final Fantasy IX is fascinating example of this. It is an archive of memory which details the founding of Terra, the civilization which existed 5000 years ago on Gaia. A series of faces on the wall speak, showing holographs as records of Terran history – it was an advanced civilization which was, ultimately, dying. I sense that this scene stages many of Square Enix’s anxieties about the franchise. Final Fantasy IX was the last “classic” Final Fantasy game, and borrowed liberally (and lovingly) from past games, not least with its chibified characters and whimsical tone. The faces dramatize issues to do with digitization, memory and the way old histories can be reincorporated in the present, things that clearly were very important for Square to move on.
Another quick example is the number of books on show! Though the Final Fantasy games always feature shed loads of books, Final Fantasy IX is replete with libraries and literature. This furthers the feeling of depth and history of the cultures represented in FFIX, as well as evoking the dusty, historical atmosphere of a Final Fantasy game which is built on the shoulders of other games in the series. The scholars you encounter throughout provide you with tasty tidbits about the origins of magic and summoning. It is as if Square is returning to the legends and myths at the centre of Final Fantasy, experimenting with what kind of coherent back story could cover magic, monsters and creatures like Quina.
As much as I love FFIX, I understand that Square needed to move on, a fresh start and all that. Something “modern” for a new generation of consoles. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what was lost by exorcising all those Final Fantasy spirits through FFIX, and whether the later games have even a quarter as much soul. I’m a traditionalist at heart, and so I’m one of those girls who loves old Disney, books, quiet places and sentimentally conservative games. I can’t let go. In many ways I’m still that 12 year old, nose pressed against my TV hoping for the disc to restart – hoping for the old magic of Square to return.