In the summer of 2000, the United States was still a few months away from an election that would shift the political stakes of the next decade. Still a year out from 9/11, the very notion that the US would start a war half a world away didn’t seem possible. The “dot com bubble,” a period of intense speculation about the profitability of the early internet, was still in full force. A universe of unhindered, invincible plenitude seemed to stretch out.
It was in that context that Final Fantasy 9, a game about peace and plenitude being destroyed by war and greed, was released. It asked a prescient question that foreshadowed the changes in our world over the next 20 years: What do you do when the world around you has become fundamentally worse than it was before?
In contrast to gung-ho militarism of a Call of Duty game or the individualist heroism of an Assassin’s Creed, Final Fantasy 9 presents players with a coherent, peaceful world that is shattered and recouped, over and over again, by powerful figures who will trample everyone and everything that stands in their way. Final Fantasy 9 both demands that people stand up to injustice and disaster, and it grants that we can never go it alone. It presents us with an overwhelmingly violent world, and it holds a banner up for taking collective action against the injustices presented there.
The reviews of the game back in 2000 didn’t pick up on any of this. IGN mentioned the game’s narrative as if it were just something to fill the time between graphical enhancements over previous installments of FF games; GameSpot was sensitive to the emotional beats and the humor more than any specific plot points about war or conflict. Neither mentioned the core of the game’s narrative: The country of Alexandria, led by Queen Brahne and lured by the possibility of ruling the world by a malevolent sorcerer, attacks the country of Burmecia. In the attack, they forego traditional soldiers in favor of an army of automatons and the use of eidolons, the summoned monsters of previous Final Fantasy games. This form of of warfare eclipses most other conflicts in the world’s history, and it starts a chain reaction of total war that generates the worldwide danger befitting a game in a series in which the stakes are always about ecological catastrophe, the collapse of the space-time continuum or the death of all life.
The overwhelming violence that engulfs the world of Final Fantasy 9 is fueled by the use of automatons and eidolons. Unlike the humans of the game, both kill indiscriminately and without reflection. Each exists only to inflict the maximum amount of death on a civilian population. Final Fantasy 9 shows us the closest thing to a fantasy weapon of mass destruction that exists in video games. Watching the the attack on Cleyra or the destruction of Lindblum makes it clear that the game’s designers were going for effects that evoked extensive bombings and the flash of nuclear weapon detonations.
The annihilating white light of the former echoes a nuclear explosion, and it’s so powerful that there are no human effects: We see objects destroyed, and the several civilians that the player had saved mere moments before are obscured inside buildings that are dissolving in a bright flash of magical energy. Atomos, the monster that destroys Lindblum in the second video, makes the destruction more personal. In a similar move of death, we see Alexandrian enemies and Lindblum soldier allies flying up into the waiting maw of a monster that exists only to deal widespread destruction. We see individuals, just like the dozens we’ve talked to in the game already, swallowed up by the maw. There is a human impact, and we witness it explicitly. The whole world dissolves when the weapon of mass destruction is brought to bear on them; good guys and bad guys cease to exist, as all the living beings are turned into mere bodies flailing in the air as they move toward their destruction.
This tremendous violence disrupts a period of cultural growth and profound change. As the game explains through dialogue and item descriptions, this world has been a peaceful one for almost thirty years. War had become unthinkable due to the march of progress. Much like the world in which Final Fantasy 9 was developed, the world inside of the game understands itself as moving forward to an ever-more-harmonious and technologically advanced state. Low-powered mist engines are being replaced with high-powered, efficient steam engines. Isolated villages are abandoning their farms and leaning into industrial production. The movement of people and goods seems safer and more possible than it ever has before. Then, war.
Final Fantasy 9 works hard to show the effects of Alexandria’s warmongering on the lives of its many denizens. Heads of the state become involved in espionage and sabotage. Average townspeople like Part Time Worker Mary, a character we see several times over the course of the game, try to maintain normalcy while anxiously waiting for the worst to happen. The people in between — the world-spanning thieves, the scholars and the rich card-playing nobles — seem to try to ignore it altogether, hoping that it will all blow over.
Within the military class, soldiers and leaders alike struggle with the question of what one should do versus what they are directed do. Beatrix, the general of the Alexandrian military, and Steiner, the head of a knightly order, are both characters committed to the ideals of Alexandria. Both believe that their country is good, that their leader could do no wrong. “Trust in the Queen,” Steiner says after rumors of war begin circulating, “she would never commit an atrocity.” The split between what these characters believe and reality is a massive one.
The game brilliantly demonstrates that split by showing three perspectives of the attack on Cleyra. The first is Queen Brahne, the ruler of Alexandria, talking to her daughter. She explains why she moved for a preemptive war: “I couldn’t just wait for them to attack and destroy our precious kingdom. So, I had no choice but to take initiative.” A short while later, the player goes through several scenes with an average soldier named Dan, who flees one attack by the Alexandrians only to encounter and be destroyed by them at Cleyra. Then, finally, we have the glee on Brahne’s face as she unleashes magical doom on civilians. She dances and twirls; as the conquering head of state, she is the only person who has experienced no suffering or threat of death in her crusade to rule the continent.
The aggressive pre-emptive warfare, the killing of a humanized character and the glee at absolutely annihilating one’s enemy all come into focus for the player and the characters at the same time. Beatrix and Steiner, those warrior-stewards, both break with the state in this moment of recognition. They actively choose to betray their duties because the actions of the state under the leadership of Queen Brahne have gone beyond the pale of conflict. Unprovoked attacks on civilians, with weapons that cannot be defended against, and which utterly destroy everything that comes into contact with them, cause these two soldiers to reject the vows that they took in service to the state. When faced with the reality of what Alexandria is doing with its power, these leaders simply turn their back on that state and walk away.
What distinguishes this game from others, however, is that Final Fantasy 9 doesn’t pretend that this is enough. It isn’t just about generals turning their backs on their duty. After all, there are other people who will take up that job. But alongside Steiner and Beatrix, many other people turn their backs on their duties to stand and face the annihilating power that Alexandria wields. Final Fantasy 9 gives us a landscape of people who are all willing to put their lives on the line to stop injustice: smugglers, engineers, city leaders, researchers, knights, airship captains and dozens of others who are sometimes lead characters and other times merely figures who show up in a single scene to do a job.
The game is giving us a lesson with how it structures its world, and that lesson is this: The only response to overwhelming violence is an equal, and opposite, overwhelming commitment to justice. It has to happen across all layers of society. It doesn’t have to agree on methods, and those who band together don’t have to like each other, but it does demand an agreement that the world is broken and must be changed.
For Final Fantasy 9, it isn’t just players who change the world. This story isn’t solely about a rag-tag group who saves everyone because they’re smart and strong and brave. The world itself, with all of its people, has to stand up and decide how it wants to look. No one other game in the franchise, and very few games outside of it, commits to this vision of justice as much as this one does, and I have to wonder if it is because of that time period when it was released. In a time of relative prosperity, with war itself on the wane, game design could think about big, idealist changes. But that was then, of course, and this is now.