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Guest Column: Learning About Life and Death From a Little Black Mage

In the face of familial struggle, guest writer Gino Grieco found solace in Final Fantasy IX.

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Heads up, this article speaks openly about major plot details of Final Fantasy IX, VII, and X.

Most people remember Final Fantasy IX for its nostalgic return to the series’ roots. It features many of the character archetypes from the earlier games, like Black Mages and White Mages; it returns to a European-inspired fantasy/steampunk world (there are dwarves) after VII and VIII’s more modern, sci-fi/steampunk aesthetics (people go to space); it references earlier games in the series with remixed songs,repurposed items, and re-imagined characters. But while FFIX may stand out to others for its nostalgic winks at earlier games in the series, for me, it will always stand out for its rumination on and representation of terminal illness.

Of course, FFIX never explicitly mentions diseases of any kind. It does, however, feature two central characters that have artificially shortened lifespans with little to no hope of extension. The game’s secondary protagonist, Vivi, and main antagonist, Kuja, both learn that their lives will end prematurely.

Vivi is a young Black Mage, modeled after Black Mages from earlier games in the FF series. He begins the game as a relative cipher, completely oblivious of who he is and what his purpose in life could be. However, as the game unfolds, he learns that his entire race was created in a factory to be foot soldiers in an escalating war between the three major countries of FFIX’s main continent. Kuja is the arms dealer stoking the fires of war with a constant flow of magical weapons, including the Black Mages. In the most ironic of twists, Kuja was manufactured to be an angel of death on the planet Gaia by an even more powerful being. Both Kuja and Vivi were artificially constructed to be disposable tools of war, and as such they were engineered to die young. Magical planned obsolescence might not perfectly match being diagnosed with a terminal condition, but damn if it isn’t the closest fantasy equivalent.

It’s about halfway through the game when Vivi gets the bad news about his shortened lifespan. After discovering how he was made and what his original purpose in life was, Vivi and the rest of the party stumble upon an entire village full of sentient Black Mages. Up until this point, almost every Black Mage you encounter is a silent killing-machine, unlike the thoughtful and soft-spoken Vivi.

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In the Black Mage village, he finally finds a home full of people like himself after his short lifetime of wandering. However, as so often is the case in life, his newfound joy is soon followed by newfound hardship. At the rear of the village, Vivi finds a cemetery, the only one in the game (though there is also a lone grave in Alexandria). Although FFIX is a game full of bloodshed, the Black Mage Village is the only place where death is depicted without any precipitating violence. The battles in FFIX are all high tragedies filled with war crimes and magical weapons of mass destruction; but, this one small, windswept plot acknowledges the quiet terror of natural death. This cemetery represents a truth that is as simple as it is unsettling: we all die some day.

Video games almost always seem to have a solution to mortality. If the world is dying, you’re healthy. If civilization is under attack, you’re the hero. If you’re sick, there’s a cure -- there’s always a damn cure. Games rarely deal in fragility and inevitability. They’re empowering to a fault. Even when games do display death, they often aggrandize it to the point of absurdity. If a main character has to die, they are snatched away in a huge, symbolic instant like Tidus in Final Fantasy X. If a side character bites the dust, their passing is a rallying cry for the entire plot like Aerith in Final Fantasy VII.

But, as someone who is currently sitting in a hospital room watching his grandfather fight for his life, I’m rarely provided any useful references on what it’s like to be in this situation by video games. They don’t tell me how to comfort someone without healing them. They don’t tell me how to continue my life without missing what could be precious, final moments with a loved one. Video games provide escape, not sustenance. It’s because of these narrative trends that I pay attention whenever a game seriously examines mortality. It’s because of these narrative trends that I still replay Final Fantasy IX.

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At the Black Mage Village’s cemetery, Vivi meets Mr. 56 and Mr. 288, two other Black Mages. Mr. 56 sets the stage for one of the game’s biggest revelations with a chillingly naïve anecdote about how his friend, Mr. 36, just “stopped moving” one day. He ends his story by saying, “He's going to come out [of the ground] again one day, right? When he does, I'm going to wash him off in the pond.”

Mr. 56’s story breaks my heart. The game makes clear that Mr. 56 does not fully grasp what death means. He cannot understand how his friend suddenly passed away, and so he believes this friend can reawaken just as suddenly. And yet, despite his naiveté, it is a beautiful vision. I cannot imagine what it would be like to stand before a friend’s tombstone and think about something as simple as bathing them after they wake up. The game seems to want me to dismiss Mr. 56 for being childish, for not really understanding how death functions. But I can’t bring myself to do that.

Once Mr. 56 raises the question of why Black Mages are dying at an alarming rate, Vivi flees the cemetery terrified, worried about how Mr. 56’s story could pertain to his own life. When he returns later that night, Mr. 288 tells him, "I think our life span is limited... I've suspected this ever since the first one came to a stop. It varies a little, but most of us stop moving one year after production." And with that, the doctor has given his prognosis: Vivi is six months old at the game’s start, which would give him about six months to live. After finally finding the home he so longed for, Vivi is given his probable expiration date. And yet, somehow Vivi doesn’t let his life grind to a halt. The very next day he tells the party that “everyone in the village asked me to see the outside world and tell them about it.” Vivi’s journey continues as though nothing happened. He doesn’t even take a day to regroup.

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After the Black Mage Village, Vivi’s story fades into the background for many of the following acts. That is, until Vivi has to confront his fellow Black Mages’ existential dread. Towards the end of the game, Kuja recruits 99% of the Black Mage Village to his cause by promising to extend their lives in return for their servitude. Of course the main party foils his evil plans and frees the Black Mages; however, when the mages abandon Kuja, their disillusionment is palpable. They were dying, looking for any salvation, any answer, no matter how unlikely. In the midst of their turmoil Vivi asks Zidane, the game’s main character, “Zidane! What am I supposed to tell them!?” He wants his surrogate older brother to tell him the magic words that might comfort his shell-shocked family. Before Zidane can even muster a platitude, Vivi turns and walks towards his family, saying, “All I can do... is just sit with them.”

I remember when my mom was at her sickest.

As her cancer got worse and her chemo got stronger, she would occasionally ask me why God would put her through this a second time. Why did it have to be her and what did she do wrong to deserve her suffering? At the time I was studying the story of Job in one of my high school English classes, so I felt like I might actually have the knowledge she needed. Maybe I had the magic words that would give her peace. I explained to her how God tested Job for seemingly no reason and how Job was ultimately rewarded for maintaining his faith in the face of the worst hardships. I would interpret and reinterpret the story, thinking if I just found the right phrasing she might stop crying. If I just knew what to say, she could sleep with some confidence, maybe find some peace. I thought my will and love might summon some great wisdom. But nothing worked. None of my words made the food stay down.

But through all of this, I lay by my mom’s side clinging as though any day might be my last with her. I stared at her bald head and held her swollen hands. For as little as musings mattered, my physical presence always brightened her day. Just seeing one of the people she was fighting so hard for gave her a little more spirit; it helped her stay awake just a little longer.

All I could do was sit with her.

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I may have learned from it, but Vivi’s statement does not read like sage advice, it reads like resignation. The narration’s use of ellipses and its juxtaposition with Vivi’s previous shouting lends an air of exasperation or overwhelming sadness to his statement. After all, in this moment he is both a patient learning that a potentially revolutionary treatment cannot work and a caregiver comforting his family members after they get their own bad news. But there is something moving about sitting with someone and acknowledging your shared powerlessness in the face of death. In mutual frailty there somehow is strength, however fleeting that strength may be.

It’s a moment that mirrors Vivi’s earlier decision to rejoin the party after first learning of his terminal condition. Whether you’re the patient or someone supporting a patient, hearing a terrible diagnosis can erase days, weeks. The timeframe of your life changes so radically that every decision suddenly has importance. Priorities shift and routines can break down before the physical toll even begins. Although Vivi finds a way to rise above the existential dread that grips his brethren, his resolve is not easily communicable. He cannot force his fellow Black Mages to adopt his optimistic outlook.

Vivi’s story ends during the game’s final cutscene, and to the credit of FFIX’s development team, they don’t shrink from a difficult thing. Vivi never finds some miracle cure for his shortened lifespan. Instead, the game’s ending cinematic is interspersed with what are presumably Vivi’s final thoughts. There is a beautiful simplicity in the handful of sentences he’s allowed, and one bit of narration has always stuck with me: “To keep doing what you set your heart on... It's a very hard thing to do. We were all so courageous...”

Currently my grandfather, my Papa, is struggling with late-stage cancer. I don’t have the heart to accept that he might lose his battle, but my rational mind can’t ignore the signs. Everyday is a struggle for him. Things he once took for granted, like walking up stairs and tasting food, are withering away. Day by day I feel like he might be giving up. And yet, some days he finds the strength to walk over to the dinner table to eat with me and my family. Sometimes he’s just as happy to tell me about his farm in Italy or his mother’s cooking as he’s ever been. And on those days I feel this tremendous sense of pride in my grandfather’s strength. Despite all of the physical and emotional strain he’s under, there are some things that his heart is still set on. Despite the hardships, he keeps on going. Cancer has a way of transforming even the most mundane moments into heroic triumphs, and each one is courageous.

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While Final Fantasy IX does not sugarcoat the reality of Vivi’s condition, it does grant him some permanence beyond the intangible memories that his friends carry forward. Vivi is the only character in FFIX who(ironically, given his age) has kids. During the game’s final cutscene, Puck, Vivi’s first real friend, runs into a Black Mage that looks identical to Vivi. At first, Puck is startled to see his friend after such a long time. However, the Black Mage replies that he isn’t Vivi he’s “Vivi's son”. He is then followed by six other Vivis through the streets of Alexandria.

This moment seems to be FFIX’s answer to the question, “If we’re all going to die eventually, what’s the point of living?” The game posits that although Vivi doesn’t survive the events of the game, the impact he had on those around him has carried forward. In fact, he made such an impact that someone found a way to create more Black Mages in Vivi’s image. Even in death, the game reinforces the value of Vivi’s relentless optimism and purposeful lifestyle. Although he may have perished, Vivi’s has left behind an entire lineage.

There is a power in carrying forward a legacy so directly. I’m actually the third Gino in my family. Both of my grandfathers share my name. One of them died of cancer before I was born, and the other is fighting it now. It’s hard to think that my life will end any other way. What if my blueprints share that same fatal flaw? However, all of the superstition in the world couldn’t make me change my name. Sometimes I think sharing a name conveys some of the charisma and diligence that my grandfather’s embodied. Or I imagine how my name allows my mother to keep her father in her life everyday. It’s odd being both a symbol of my parent’s love for their fathers, and a unique person in my own right; but, I relish the opportunity to leave my own mark on the name Gino. Maybe someone else will carry it on for me.

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Though I know that this isn’t how things work, I can’t help from feeling like it’s fate that FFIX would resurface right now, at a time when I need it again. I just wish I could share with my Papa the lesson that Vivi’s story taught me. I wish I could convey some way for him to stay optimistic while still staring death in the face. Maybe I still can. After all, my Papa loves when I speak Italian, and in Italian, Vivi means to live.

This article is dedicated to my Mom, my Papa, my Grandpa Gino, my Grandma, my uncle Egidio, and anyone else who’s lives have been touched by cancer. I miss you already Papa.

Gino Grieco is a freelance writer, computer programmer, and Giant Bomb moderator. He's the guy who writes all of those Final Fantasy and Magic the Gathering blogs. He co-hosts the "Deep Listens" podcast which can be found here. You can find him on Twitch, Youtube, Twitter, and some site called Giant Bomb dot com under username ThatPinguino.