Final Fantasy X begins in the technological wonderland of Zanarkand. Tidus is a star Blitzball player. He’s famous enough that he’s got fans who want autographs, which implies some sort of pro-league position. The game doesn’t explain how it works, and we’re not here long enough to find out, but we do get the sense that this guy is a big deal.
Now Leaving Zanarkand
On his way to the gameHe walks there on what looks like a highway, but there aren’t any cars and everyone else is also on foot. I wonder how transport works in this world?, he passes a hologram billboard of Jecht. The voice-over explains that this guy was a superstar Blitzball player before he vanished ten years ago. Tidus makes a comment that indicates this guy is his dad.
Everyone in this story talks to Tidus about “Your Father”, but Tidus himself always calls him, “My old man”. I strongly suspect this is a bit of Japanese language getting lost or warped in translation. I imagine Tidus is using a really informal (perhaps disrespectful?) word for father, and “old man” is the closest thing we have in English. But “old man” isn’t necessarily disrespectful and it has a rural vibe I’m sure isn’t intendedPossibly also a gender vibe. I haven’t heard “old man” used often in reference to someone’s father, but in every case it’s always been a female. I’m not sure if that means anything or if it’s just a fluke.. I’m not faulting the translator. This is probably as close as you can get.
We’re treated to a CGI cutscene of the Blitzball game. Even 15 years after release, these scenes still look really good. And I don’t just mean graphically. This scene shows how much time and effort Square Enix has poured into mastering the use of this style of short-form cinema.
There are a lot of details in here that exist not because the scene demands it, but because the artists apparently love pushing themselves. There is a lot of really advancedFor the day water physics, lighting effects, reflective surfaces, and other time-consuming rendering challenges. The shots zoom in close so we can see the drops of water on someone’s face and the texture of someone’s clothing, and then the camera pulls back to show us the entire city. We have motion-captured people, light refraction, non-Newtonian liquid surfacesThe animation of the Sin hurricane. and dense crowds. And all of this work was put into a single location that isn’t going to appear in any later CGI scenes. This showcase of technical and artistic effort feels almost decadent.
A stadium-size Kaiju rises out of the sea and destroys the city, cutting the Blitzball game short. Tidus runs away, meets his friend Auron, and they escape the disaster together. Auron explains that this monster is called Sin.
I know this is a Final Fantasy game, but I still find it hilarious when Auron gives Tidus a surfboard-sized sword and says, “I hope you know how to use it.”
Not only do they live in a techno-future world where people use wildly archaic and impractical swords, but Auron hopes that Blitzball player Tidus has – somehow, in secret – gotten experience using one before. And apparently he has, because it turns out Tidus does okay with the surfboard sword.
But this is Final Fantasy. If you’re asking this kind of question, then you are not in the proper mindset for this game. It’s actually important that the storyteller leads off with underwater football and buster swords. It helps set the tone and (if you’re not familiar with the series) can free you of your western expectations. Later, when undead priests start talking about summoning simulated underwater football players from dream worlds to fight endlessly reborn kaiju Satan, you can’t claim the game has been leading you on with promises of grounded realism.
Auron and Tidus fight their way through a bunch of crawling Sin-spawn and we get our basic combat tutorials out of the way. At the end of the road, Auron and Tidus find themselves on a crumbling platform, directly under this disturbing, undulating storm of goop. Auron asks the goop, “Are you sure?” Apparently the goop is, because Auron tosses Tidus into it and the adventure begins.
Tidus wakes up in a world of stone ruins and grey fog. The player is very likely wondering the same thing Tidus is: Where am I, and how did I get here? It’s going to take the game a long time to get around to answering this. And even once it does answer it, we still won’t know. The game will eventually explain (sort of) how Tidus traveled from his world to Spira, but it doesn’t ever explain why he arrived here in these particular ruins.
Like in the new Tomb Raider game, the story begins with a struggle to keep warm and fed that will be completely forgotten about later on. Once you’re warm and full, you’ll be able to swim in ice water and never need to eat again. It’s really just a blunt tool to humanize the character by giving them some immediate needs that we can empathize with.
It’s clear that the writer is trying to set a mood here. They want Tidus alone in these ghostly ruins. Based on what the game tells us, it would be slightly less confusing if we appeared in the ruins of Zanarkand. But the story needs Zanarkand to be our destination, so Tidus couldn’t land there. Instead we’ve landed on the opposite side of the world map.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is supposed to be the ruins of Zanarkand. This is clearly ZanarianI made that up, but it seems to fit. architecture, to the point where the staircase leading into the main hall is a copy of the staircase entrance to the Blitzball arena at the end of the game.
This place does turn out to be tangentially relevant to the plot. There’s a secret Aeon buried hereMore on her later in the series. and if you’re very lucky (or you read the Wiki) you might discover this place exists and come back to it much later. But there’s no explanation why Tidus is dropped off hereThere are some extratextual explanations in the Ultimania guide, if you can get your hands on those kinds of rare collector’s items. And if you can read Japanese.. The same is true of the Aeon, actually. Both of them would make more sense if they were in Zanarkand right now.
Tidus fumbles around the ruins doing adventure-game stuff. Again, I think the storyteller just wanted to establish a mood of forlorn isolation before having Tidus meet the locals. I guess if your game is 60 hours long and has an unlimited art budget then you can afford to expend half an hour and an entire location on “setting the mood” before the story moves on.
A monster attacks, and it’s a bit too much for Tidus. Some folks bust in through a door and save him. After the fight, they jump him and rough him up. One holds a knife up to his throat. These guys are the Al Bhed.
If this is your first time through the game, then you can’t understand what they’re saying. Their language is a simple letter-substitution replacement of English (or whatever language you’re playing in) and so I guess you could translate their dialog yourself if you’re in the mood to write down all their subtitles and play cryptogram with them. You can actually learn the language as you play through the game, and the subtitles will gradually become more intelligible as more letters are translated. If you play through a second timeOr a third, or a tenth… then you (the player) will be able to carry over your language-learning progress and read what they’re saying, even if Tidus himself can’t understand them.
Even though you can’t normally read their subtitles, their dialog indicates they think you might be a fiend. (A monster.) Tidus is a walking talking human and there is literally no reason in the world to suspect him of being anything other than a person, but these guys don’t even care. The guy holding the knife says something to the effect of “Fiend or not, it’s all the same if he’s dead.”
The girl – who we learn later is named Rikku – talks them out of it. Instead they knock Tidus out and take him to an oceangoing platform they’re using as a base. They pound on him rather than trying to talk to him, even though Rikku speaks both languages and could easily act as a translator. Eventually Rikku steps in and says Tidus can stay if he makes himself useful. There’s a wreck at the bottom of the ocean and they want him to go down and help salvage it. (The wreck is actually the airship we’ll have access to much later in the story.)
Later on we learn that the Al Bhed are an oppressed minority. They’re called “heathens” – and worse – by basically everyone else in the world. The writer will eventually portray them as idealistic to a fault. They will fight and die to save the lives of others, simply because they think the current system of sacrificing people to stave off Sin is deeply unfair. The Al Bhed would rather risk being devoured by Sin than let someone else (someone willing, even!) die on their behalf. Which makes this entire scene deeply confusing in retrospect.
The Al Bhed were going to kill Tidus for basically no reason. But when Rikku pleaded for mercy they instead kidnapped and enslaved him. Rikku frames this like a job offer, “You can stay if you make yourself useful!” But since they knocked him out and brought him to the middle of the ocean, he can’t really say no. It’s not like he blundered into their village and asked to stay. They brought him out here and insisted that he work.
Also, since these guys were too busy acting like violent assholes to make even a basic effort to communicate with Tidus, they have no idea what his situation was. Yes, he was probably going to starve or die of exposure in those freezing ruins. But the Al Bhed didn’t know that. For all they know, Tidus was separated from family or friends who might still be looking for him.
You Broke My Protagonist!
Even after Tidus helps them salvage the wreck, they still treat him like cattle. They make him sleep outside on the metal deck instead of allowing him to come below. Even Rikku – who is elsewhere in the story a deeply empathetic teenage girl – abuses him. When she brings him food, she doesn’t get his attention by speaking to him and hand him the plate like a human being. Instead she kicks him while he’s lying on the deck. Then she puts the food down on the floor like she’s feeding a dog.
The writer has stuck a giant flashing neon sign on the Al Bhed saying, “THESE PEOPLE ARE BAD GUYS”. At this point in the story we might even assume they are THE bad guys. Even if Riiku didn’t speak his language, their behavior is still naked villainy. Just image the same scene with Tidus replaced with some sympathetic animal: They beat it, argue over killing it, beat it some more, make it work, and then make it sleep alone out in the cold. The audience would be clenching their teeth, just waiting until these guys taste justice in Act 3. They’re not just villains. They’re cartoonish, shallow, strawmen villains.
When Rikku is finally done treating Tidus like a mule and deigns to talk to him, she tells him about the Al Bhed. She says at one point, “You’re not an Al Bhed hater, are you?”
“Well, I AM NOW”, I usually yell at my screen.
I think this is one of the main problems with Tidus. People say he’s “whiny”. Sometimes even a “whiny bitch”. But up until this point he’s simply reacting to being alone, cold, and hungry. He’s a teenage boy and he’s suffering and in danger. Expressing those things isn’t being “whiny”, it’s being human.
The problem comes when we get to this scene. He’s put up with their abuse. He’s worked hard. He’s even risked his life in deadly combat. And now they’re reaping the material benefit from his hard work, and they don’t even allow him the basic courtesy of sleeping with a roof over his head. They communicate through hitting rather than relying on the translator and they go out of their way to treat Tidus like an animal.
But instead of getting angry, Tidus whines, “Hey, I helped didn’t I?” He doesn’t stand up for his own humanity. He doesn’t insist on being treated like a person. He doesn’t begin plotting revenge or escape when he sees his captors are amoral brutes who would kill him without a second thought if doing so would be more convenient for them.
The writer has created a giant gap between what we’re being told and what we’re being shown. It’s telling us the Al Bhed are basically good people who have been oppressed by society. But it shows us they’re enthusiastic villains. Tidus tells us (through his understated reaction) that these people are being rude to him, while the story shows that they’re actually murderous slave-drivers.
Being hungry and cold humanizes him, but having him oblivious to the ill-treatment is actually alienating. The writer just spent half an hour building an emotional connection between us and this character, and now they’re breaking it by having the character act in a way that we can’t identify with.
No matter how you look at it, something is broken in this scene. How you process this dissonance probably has a lot to do with how you feel about Tidus from now on. I found myself blaming the story / storyteller, not Tidus. But if you’re a little more generous and accept what the storyteller is showing you, then Tidus is a moron and a doormat for being so apathetic about the things that are happening to him. Why are we more angry at his abuse than he is?
I don’t think people dislike Tidus for complaining when he’s hungry. I think they hate him because he complains instead of fighting against naked cruelty and injustice.
As evil and as unsympathetic as the Al Bhed seem here, I’m pretty sure this was unintentional. Or at least, the animosity towards the Al Bhed is supposed to be something we get over quickly. Once Tidus is fed, he and Rikku have a friendly expositional conversation where they both seem to completely forget what brought the two of them together.
We’ll get to know the Al Bhed later in the story. When Tidus sees Rikku again, he introduces her as one of the people who saved his life, not as one of the people who beat, kidnapped, and briefly enslaved him. There’s no grudge. None of these people come and apologize. Nobody else seems to be the victim of Al Bhed mistreatment. It never comes up again. Every other part of the story portrays them as sympathetic. Well, there’s another kidnapping later. And another attempted murder via submarine. And then the unfortunate business with the tank. And…
Actually, I guess this game is pretty confused about how the Al Bhed moral compass works and who these people are supposed to be.
Here is how I think this happened: I think the hitting, shoving, knife-threatening, and “kidnapping” were all just intended to contribute to the overall sense of isolation. The writer was trying to sell the notion that Tidus is alone in a new world of danger where he doesn’t even know the language. If the writer had skipped this section, then Tidus would have (I suppose) simply appeared on the beach on Besaid Island. That would have broken the story in several different ways.
This first chapter of the story needs to establish that Sin is an insidious force of evil. And we also need to empathize with Tidus and his struggle to return home. We also need Tidus to feel a sense of relief when he finally meets someone nice. Skipping the isolation of the ruins and hostility of the Al Bhed would have screwed up all of these. The story would be saying “Sin steals Tidus from his home and leaves him in a tropical island paradise full of welcoming people.” That wouldn’t work.
So I understand there were good reasons in terms of story and tone to have the Al Bhed act like such villains here. And I understand that the basic economics of dramatic storytelling demand that we re-use characters whenever possible. But this scene breaks the Al Bhed and alienates us from the protagonist. The Al Bhed who would casually murder Tidus are very different from the Al Bhed who would stop the pilgrimages, and the story does nothing to reconcile them. I think the writer is trying to play this scene off as a “misunderstanding”, and it flat-out doesn’t work.
If nothing else, the writer should have done more to keep Rikku blameless in the whole thing.
 He walks there on what looks like a highway, but there aren’t any cars and everyone else is also on foot. I wonder how transport works in this world?
 Possibly also a gender vibe. I haven’t heard “old man” used often in reference to someone’s father, but in every case it’s always been a female. I’m not sure if that means anything or if it’s just a fluke.
 For the day
 The animation of the Sin hurricane.
 I made that up, but it seems to fit.
 More on her later in the series.
 There are some extratextual explanations in the Ultimania guide, if you can get your hands on those kinds of rare collector’s items. And if you can read Japanese.
 Or a third, or a tenth…
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