Ok, so why do people love this one in particular? What's so special about Final Fantasy IX? Well... Final Fantasy IX may have the most focused and interesting story I've ever seen in a Japanese video game... Too bad it's surrounded by convoluted abstract ideas that don't always make sense. Let's elaborate, shall we?
DISCLAMER: SPOILERS! A whole lot of 'em! I will RUIN this game for you. Or maybe I'll extract what's cool about it and show it to you. Either way, you will know everything there is to know about its story by the end of this blog thingy.
Have you ever heard of Blade Runner? Or the book it was based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Well that's FFIX. Yes, it's almost the exact same story, but trapped in a current of all this other bullshit, a current so strong- you may overlook what's special about this game. Let's start with our main dude. Wait... There was a name for that. Prota... Pro... Protag--
Okay, so his name is Zidane (no, not THAT Zidane obviously, he's not bald, and I'm not sure he plays soccer... at least I hope not) he is this thief teenager that ends up saving the princess and... He's a REPLICANT! Our main boy here is a puppet, a robot made outta meat. Let's look at the FF Wiki entry foz Zine... Ekhm, Zidane:
Zidane began his life as an "Angel of Death" created by Garland. Long ago, the people of a dying planet of Terra planned to save their civilization by assimilating another planet. Unable to find a newly-born planet to fuse with, they settled on assimilating the young planet of Gaia. The Terrans left their physical bodies and locked their souls in Pandemonium to be watched over by Garland until the Fusion's completion. The Fusion was a disastrous failure, leaving Gaia's surface in ruin and ending up with Terra shifting inside the planet of Gaia.
Link to the Zidane entry.
What? Ok, so there's a planet named Terra. It's a planet full of selfish pricks that tried to fuse with another habitable planet so they didn't have to die. They put themselves in a state of hibernation in order to survive, and elected a dude called Garland to watch over the whole thing. However, things didn't pan out, and Gaia (because of course it's Gaia), the planet they wanted to fuse with, got effed up. So in order to fix things, Garland sends a big organic device (known as the Lifa Tree) to Gaia's surface to fix things up. He wants the planet nice and pulp before he can begin the uh... Assimilation I guess. When the time is ready, he begins to switch the Gaian soul energy thingies, for Terran energy whatever.
To control the cycle of souls in Gaia, Garland used the Iifa Tree to prevent the Gaian souls from returning to the planet, trapping them within Iifa's roots. Later, Garland constructed the Soul Divider at the Iifa Tree's base that allowed the souls of Terra to flow into Gaia instead.
Link to Garland's Wiki page.
So what does this have to do with our prota... Main dude- Zidane? Well, he's a Genome (you know, a replicant). Garland has created these things so that the Terran souls can be put into these husks later on when the assimilation is completed. But the whole assimilation thing is taking forever, so Garland escalates things. He creates a Genome with a soul. This so called "Angel of Death" is made so that... Uh, I guess a bunch of Gaian people can get smoked? Why wouldn't he use his advanced alien technology to exterminate the people of Gaia? I guess he kinda does that too? By controlling the Eidolons (the summons) with his weird Eye-ship in the sky? Why doesn't he do that all the time? That would be way easier than sending ONE dude down to Gaia so that he can fuck things up. I mean look at this shit, this is when the Angel of Death named Kuja takes control of the Eye-ship (invincible) and manipulates Bahamut:
Couldn't you just use the ship to do this without sending anyone down there? I would use that ALL the time. Those Eidolons work like a goddamn nuke! Here's the power hungry Queen Brahne using Odin:
I guess the Gaians have to create these Eidolons so that they can be manipulated? Garland himself cannot make Eidolons happen? Well that doesn't make sense, the Invincible Eye-ship was designed to control them, why can't it summon them? Wait, forget the Eidolons, just drop a nuke on the planet! I'm so confused...
Whatever, Kuja is created and Kuja sucks (well, we all know that), so Garland creates Zidane. Zidane is the superior Genome, he's the better version of Kuja. He's to be taught and then sent to Gaia to do Garland's bidding. Fortunately the whole thing is sabotaged by the jelaous Kuja, and Zidane is stranded on Gaia.
This makes sense. Kuja is pissed off that he is now the inferior being. So why is Kuja inferior? Well, Kuja doesn't have the emotional capacities that allow other beings to go into "Trance", a state in which you can really fuck things up. Apparently being a sociopath has its detriments! He was also designed to have a limited life span (remind you of someone?), but he finds that out later on.
Zidane doesn't remember jack shit of course, as that is the most prominent trope of any Japanese story ever told in all existence of the universe and beyond. So he grows up on Gaia unaware of all this going on.
Then he rescues the princess (who can make Eidolons happen just like that) from her mother, Queen Brahne, and he meets the best character in the FF series. Yes. QUINA.
No, wait, it's Vivi. It's Vivi you guys, sorry about that.
The Cool Stuff
Vivi is like Zidane. He is a robot construct. He is not made of flesh however. The Genomes were made using advanced technology by Garland. Vivi and his fellow mages were made using the crappy Gaian technology. Most of the mages are even more zombie-like than the soulless Genomes. Vivi is a mystery, perhaps a prototype, it's never made clear what makes Vivi special. When he finally meets the other mages, they don't give a shit about him. They act like robots, they can't speak, and it looks like they don't care what happens to them. This short cinematic shows when they are killed by another mage made to capture the princess:
Some of those mages have not been activated yet. They just fall down, lifeless. There's some cool emotional stuff going on here. Even though Vivi can't express emotions as there is a dark void where his face should be, you can really feel his confusion and inner turmoil. This is the first time he sees anything that looks like him, and even though they were just soulless robots, he knows they were his brothers.
Unfortunately for Vivi, these mages were made so that they could be used as soldiers. When the gang arrives at a city that was decimated by these things, Vivi has a hard time fitting in with the town's citizens. Final Fantasy IX has a great feature- when you're walking around the town with your main character, you can see what other characters from your posse are doing at the same time, and you can see some harsh stuff happening to Vivi when he's exploring the city alone. His isolation and confusion are really nicely written.
Much later Vivi finds out that there are a bunch of mages like him living in a secluded village- willing to learn how the world works, willing to live like human beings. They do so in secret, away from humans. Here's a great scene of Vivi talking about what it means to "stop" with one of the mages, the interesting stuff's at 1:20, 5:20 and 11:00:
Also- amusing for the mage to ask Zidane if he remembers being born. And some more dialogue here at 1:20 and 4:00:
There's more of that later on when all the mages are reunited, and it's pretty darn good too.
As you would imagine, when Zidane finds out he's a Genome, he has a crisis of identity. He has different questions going through his mind than Vivi. Vivi thinks about what it means to have a family and what it means to die. Zidane thinks about purpose, and why he was born. Fortunately for our pro.. for Zidane, his friends help him out out of the funk. Here's the scene, it is way more cheesy than it should be, but hey, isn't that the Japanese way? Also, the music is pretty fucking cool:
And so they decide to meet Garland and Kuja face to face and kick their asses.
Unfortunately for them, Garland tells Kuja his time is also limited. This doesn't sit well with Kuja. His motives up to this point were to show the world that he is better than Zidane. That he is NOT inferior. But here he learns that he was built inferior. He is the worse version of Zidane, and that's a fact. This fucks with his head and he goes into Trance and blows shit up.
He blows shit up so well- that the Genomes no longer have a place to live, so the gang takes them to the mage village where they can learn from the "faulty" mages.
It's Not About the Destination...?
So how does it all end you ask? Well, they defeat Kuja and they defeat the thing that siphons the souls from Terra to Gaia. It's trying to be very bombastic and spectacular at the end, kind of upping the ante, but it's all not very... clear. Nobody is 100% sure what is the thing they're fighting at the end, and why they need to defeat it. Save the world I guess? It gets kinda muddled and, well, dumb.
Kuja's conversation with Zidane redeems some of that baloney. They talk a little about what it means to live, what it means to be created for a purpose, even if you do not agree with that purpose. And Zidane thanks Kuja (who is on his deathbed) for defying Garland, even though he was a huge dick while doing it.
And as for Vivi... Well, he supposedly dies before the epilogue. The game quotes his letter to Zidane in which Vivi accept his own mortality. And even though he still feels lonely and scared in his last moments, he is glad he got to experience life. As he writes these last words, Vivi loosens his grip on a white dove while shutting down for good. Okay, maybe that last part did not happen.
There's a whole lot of good stuff going on in FF IX. Compared to the crap shoot that's FF VIII's story, this is a masterpiece. And there's more to it than Zidane and Vivi. Steiner, the knight protecting the Princess, needs to learn what it means to be loyal, and who deserves his loyalty, even though he's mostly used as comic relief he has a pretty neat arc. Freya is looking for her fiancee for most of the game, and when she finds him- it is revealed he has amnesia and doesn't give two shits about her. She has to reevaluate what it means to love somebody, and if memories are what makes us what we are.
It's a philosophical story, even though there's a lot of bullshit surrounding it, it has a lot of heart, and the dialogue is very well done. In terms of plot- I think it's the best Final Fantasy game. It's consistent in what ideas it wants to explore, and it explores them rather diligently.