Everyone remembers their first experience with Final Fantasy. I don’t know how true it is, but anecdotally it seems like the first game you play is most likely to be your favorite. And for me, Final Fantasy X is that first game. It just came out on Steam last week, and after spending an unwise number of hours with it I was reminded of just how much I loved the game despite the batshit insane plot.
One of the big draws of the series is just how fresh it is to western sensibilities. Over here we have our established genre conventions, story tropes, and stock characters: Tolkienesque medieval fantasy with dragons and wizards. Space Opera. Cyberpunk. Cowboy westerns. Gothic vampire fantasy. Swords and sandals epic. If an author really wants to shake things up, maybe they’ll put a steam engine in their medieval fantasy, or add some space magic to their Trek riff. Or maybe they’ll put a werewolf in their gunslinger adventure. These are fun, but they still feel like a remix of existing ideas.
In contrast, Final Fantasy feels like the product of some radically different alien culture that can’t even tell the difference between our clothing and sporting goods. Sure, a few western tropes have been woven into the DNA of the series, but seeing bits of western culture in this game is like seeing a Coke machine in a back alley in Shanghai. It doesn’t make the place feel like home, it just makes the unfamiliar elements stand out more.
I want to talk about the controversial main character, but to do that I’m going to have to spoil large parts of the game. It turns fifteen this year, so I imagine by this point you’ve either played it, read the spoilers, or you don’t care. In any case, spoiling parts of the main story is actually less of a big deal than it might seem at first. Even once I reveal the big plot twists, you probably still won’t have a clear idea of where the story is going or how things will be resolved. After reading this, the game will have lots of mysteries and surprises left for you. These spoilers might even make the game a little more comprehensible for first-time players. I know I struggled to keep up during my first brush with the game.
I’ve heard it said often that Final Fantasy X is “divisive” among FF fans, and I think I understand why. ProtagonistSome people will insist that Yuna is the protagonist, not Tidus. But that’s a discussion for another time and not something I could do justice here. Tidus isn’t your typical hero and he’s often an irritating whiner. But more importantly, he’s actually a realistic teenager in a lot of ways. Okay, the first act introduces him as a time-traveling underwater football player. And maybe that’s a tiny bit atypical among today’s youth? But he’s brash yet whiny, opinionated yet uninformed, idealistic yet hauling around a mother-lode of daddy issues.
He’s not always an awesome person to be around, but underneath the preposterous backstory and outlandish outfit is someone that feels very genuine. He’s not a teenager as teenagers see themselves, or even as they aspire to be. Instead he’s a teenager as seen by someone looking back from middle age. You can see it in the way he blurts out how he feels without thinking, the way he’s always stretching and fidgeting, the way he thinks he’s invincible, the way that he’s always hungryFor the first act, before the writers swap that out for “I want to go home”., and the fact that his entire purpose in the story is to disrupt the status quo.
Western heroes are so often emotionally invincible. They don’t get scared. They don’t feel weak. They don’t want to go home. But Tidus wears his emotions on his hilariously outlandish sleeves. He’s exuberant and vulnerable and dumb, but he is – underneath it all – a decent person.
I get why people hate him. If you’re here for escapism, then piloting Tidus might not be what you’re looking for in a power fantasy. He’s not cool and the other people in the story often disrespect him. But I felt a strange connection to the guy. Yes, he’s annoying. But he’s annoying in a way that rings true for me. I was the same kind of opinionated annoying dipshit at one time, so his faults make him real to me in a way that (say) Corvo from Dishonored or Joel from Last of Us never were.
This world required exactly this blend of irresponsible idealism and bumbling iconoclasm to solve its problem.
The World of Spira
The world of Spira is bonkers. Their religion isn’t yet another blend of Judeo-Christian imagery with the serial numbers filed off. Nor is it another secretive cult like you see in so many fantasy stories. It’s this strange collection of perfectly understandable superstitions blended with lies from a religious leadership that is desperately trying to hold this world together. Unlike most most fantasy apocalypses, the people of Spira don’t really think of themselves as inhabiting a post-apocalyptic world. The apocalypse happened so long ago that this is just the new normal for them.
The religious leaders come off as evil on your first time through the story. And they are. In fact, they’re really evil from the point of view of our protagonists. But once you know the whole story, their treachery seems less like predatory scheming villainy and more like the inevitable result of a long series of moral compromises by people who really thought they were serving the greater good.
The setup works like this:
There’s a huge monster called Sin. It spawn demons, wrecks villages, and is generally a walking natural disaster. Think of the Kaiju from Pacific Rim, only bigger.
The templeI’m trying to keep this as jargon-free as possible. – the main religion of this world – trains summoners. They go on a pilgrimage to the ruins of Zanarkand. As they go, they learn to summon larger and larger supernatural beings – called AeonsIt really is hard to avoid jargon. I’m doing my best. – to fight for them. At the end of their journey they master their powers and summon the Final Aeon. This Aeon battles Sin. If the summoner is strong enough, they defeat Sin. Either way, the summoner always dies in the process.
This brings about a period they call The Calm. No more Sin. No more monsters. People rebuild. They build a statue to the fallen summoner. They pray thanks at the temple. And they pray that maybe this time, Sin will stay dead for good.
But Sin always comes back. Sometimes it takes a decade. Sometimes more. But it always returns. The temple teaches that if people could just be good enough, they could be free of Sin forever.
But now for the real spoilers. Here’s what’s actually happening:
You Can’t Handle The Truth
Sin isn’t a supernatural punishment for the evil deeds of the people. He’s actually just this guy called Yu Yevon. He was a badass summoner back in the day. You’ll have to play the game if you want the full story, but the short version is that he wound up summoning and controlling a really massive Aeon. He sort of lost himself in the process, and became mindless. Now all he wants to do is control the biggest beast around.
When the summoner calls the Final Aeon to defeat Sin, Yu Yevon just ditches his current monster body and takes control of the new one. It takes him a while to master the new body and build up its power. During this period, he’s generally quiet. This is The Calm. When he’s got control and is feeling like he’s ready to move on, he starts stomping all over civilization again, knowing that the temple will start sending summoners and eventually one of them will show up with a final Aeon that he likes, and he’ll upgrade.
The final twist? Not only does the summoner die when they call the Final Aeon, but they need the soul of a person to power it. And they need to have a strong emotional bond with that person if they want the Aeon to be strong. So they must also sacrifice one of their friends. This last detail isn’t revealed to summoners until they’re at the end of their journey.
So the religion of Spira is a sham. Beating Sin has nothing to do with atonement. It’s a system based on human sacrifice and false hope. Summoners take their friends to their death, and all they do is stave off the world-devouring monster that torments their people.
You can see how the temple leadership – who are in on the secret – came to accept this awful system. They don’t know how to beat Yu Yevon. And (they reason) if people knew that the struggle was hopeless, then maybe we wouldn’t be able to find volunteer summoners and Sin might destroy us allAlso the people might flay us if they realized the truth. So there’s that, too.. We need to keep this sham religion going, for the good of everyone. We need to get people worked up, and give them hope that maybe they can win. Also, the “atonement” angle aims the blame outward. Instead of asking us for answers, people will try to be more virtuous in hopes of ridding the world of Sin. And that’s not a bad thing, right?
This process grinds on for a thousand years, killing people, breaking hearts, destroying cities. Spira is in a rut of misery. It’s grim and ugly, but it’s never so bad that people will get desperate enough to try something new. The temple leaders are the only ones who know the real cause of the problem, and since the teachings are the source of their political power and since they rarely bear the brunt of Sin’s attacks, they don’t have a lot of motivation to rock the boat.
The world needs an outside force to break out of the cycle. And that outside force is Tidus.
As annoying as Tidus is, he’s the perfect solution to their problemAccording to Final Fantasy logic, which is a very… flexible kind of logic.. He’s young, foolish, idealistic, and probably madly in love with Yuna, who is on her way to be the next great summoner / human sacrifice. He hasn’t been raised in the temple teachings and so isn’t afraid of shattering their taboos. He’s a horny teenager with nothing to lose. He’s a wrecking ball aimed at the entire religion. Yes, it’s Yuna who ultimately decides to Do The Shocking Thing when the time comes, and you could argue that Auron was pushing them into it, but I see Tidus and his obstinate optimism as the catalyst for that decisionShe also has the hots for him, which probably helps. It’s amazing how much the fate of Spira owes to teenage hormones..
I know it seems like I’ve spoiled the entire game, but in truth I’ve barely scratched the surface. If you’ve never played Final Fantasy before then this is a pretty good place to dive in. The Steam version has a lot of little convenience features that weren’t available to the people who played this on the Playstation 2, and they’ve mostly done a good job of updating the graphics without George Lucas-ing the feel of the gameAlthough I find the high-res faces a little too far from the originals. They’re just as valid and first-time players won’t care, but if you’re here for nostalgia the graphical upgrade might be off-putting.. You don’t need to know anything about the rest of the series and the difficulty bar is on the low sideAside from a couple of completely obnoxious mid-game boss battles, which – I’m not gonna lie – follow pretty long cutscenes. But! The PC version has built-in cheats that can ease you through one battle or break the whole game, depending on what you need..
Maybe you’ll hate Tidus. Maybe you’ll find his quirks endearing. But I do promise the game itself won’t be like anything you’ve played before.
And no, I don’t know why he was designed to look like Meg Ryan.
 Some people will insist that Yuna is the protagonist, not Tidus. But that’s a discussion for another time and not something I could do justice here.
 For the first act, before the writers swap that out for “I want to go home”.
 I’m trying to keep this as jargon-free as possible.
 It really is hard to avoid jargon. I’m doing my best.
 Also the people might flay us if they realized the truth. So there’s that, too.
 According to Final Fantasy logic, which is a very… flexible kind of logic.
 She also has the hots for him, which probably helps. It’s amazing how much the fate of Spira owes to teenage hormones.
 Although I find the high-res faces a little too far from the originals. They’re just as valid and first-time players won’t care, but if you’re here for nostalgia the graphical upgrade might be off-putting.
 Aside from a couple of completely obnoxious mid-game boss battles, which – I’m not gonna lie – follow pretty long cutscenes. But! The PC version has built-in cheats that can ease you through one battle or break the whole game, depending on what you need.
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