There’s something odd about Tidus. Well, lots of things. Actually, I guess everything about him is pretty strange. But one thing specifically, which is that there are an awful lot of things he simply doesn’t know that he should.
Final Fantasy X is using his fish-out-of-water status to help explain the world to us. That’s a great idea and it’s probably why FFX is so approachable for newcomers. However, Tidus is from Zanarkand, not another planet. So why is he apparently ignorant of major geographical locations and fauna?
Outside of Zanarkand, Tidus seems to have no idea what the world is like. It’s not like he says, “Mt. Gagazt? Yeah, in my day we called it Mt. Dave and there was an Arby’s on the summit.” When we reach Mt. Gagazet late in the story he registers no recognition whatsoever. It’s like he’s never heard of or seen this mountain before, even though it supposedly looms over the city he lived in.
He’s never seen a Chocobo, the massive yellow birds that are the primary means of mounted travel. He’s never seen a Shoopuf, a beast of burden that looks like a shaved anteater size of wooly mammoth. He’s never heard of the moonflow, a spectacular natural phenomena of glowing flower particle effects that drift over the river at night. There’s a sunken city near the moonflow that’s clearly from his time period, and he seems to know nothing about it. That’s like someone in Cleveland who has somehow never heard of Cincinnati. When the airship – an artifact of this time period – shows up, he doesn’t seem to recognize it. He’s never heard of the Guado or the Ronso even though they are clearly major races of this world. The Ronso have obviously lived next to Zanarkand for thousands of years.
Yes, he’s not really from Zanarkand. He’s from Dream Zanarkand. We’ll talk about that idea later, but for now: Dream Zanarkand was based on the real place. How is it that the dream version never had airships or Guados or Ronsos and nobody ever mentioned the mountain that would have filled the southern horizon? If you launched me from modern-day Pittsburgh to the same general area 1,000 years in the future, I wouldn’t walk around going, “The Ohio River? What’s that? Bears? Never heard of them! What’s a deer? What’s a Philadelphia? Is that some kind of rodent?”
The Ultimania Guide has a bit more information on how Dream Zanarkand works, but The Ultimania Guide is not in the game. It’s an obscure collection of bonus material, equivalent to a pre-order bonus book of design sketches. It was never even officially translated into English. If not for the internet, we wouldn’t even know it existed, much less what it said. Yet the phrase, “It’s explained in the Ultimania Guide” is said all too commonly in discussions of the Final Fantasy X story. That is, the key information for understanding what this story is saying is not contained in the text itself. And even with the help of TUG, there are still a lot of confusing blank pages in the tale of Spira.
Laying aside gripes over why half this story has to be gleaned from bootlegged books on the internet, we’re still left with the puzzle of why Tidus doesn’t know things he should know. Is this a case where the storyteller is trying to show how rough and incomplete Dream Zanarkand is? Or were they just leaning on the fish out of water trope a little too hard?
The story has been mentioning it pretty regularly: Summoners are disappearing on the road. Nobody knows why. It’s been building this mild background tension while the story has focused on a bunch of interpersonal stuff between the party members.
But as Tidus rides the shoopuf across the moonflow and fails to recognize the city beneath the water, the other shoe drops. An Al Bhed jumps into frameFrom the roof of the shoopuf cabin, which is almost Kai Leng levels of implausibility., grabs Yuna, and dives into the water. Wakka and Tidus – the only swimmers in the group – jump in after her. There’s a boss fight with an Al Bhed submarine, Yuna is saved, and they complete the journey across the moonflow.
Soon after on the road they meet Rikku. It turns out she was driving the machine that was trying to make off with Yuna. So let’s tally up the Al Bhed crimes so far:
- Assault. (Of Tidus.) Multiple counts.
- Kidnapping. (Tidus.)
- Slavery. (Tidus again.)
- Kidnapping. (Yuna, at the Blitzball game.)
- Using a hostage to cheat at Blitzball.
- Kidnapping. (Yuna again.)
- Attempted murder. (Wakka and Tidus, when they tried to save Yuna.)
So when Tidus catches up with Rikku, she yells at him and he apologizes. (Because she got hurt a little when her kidnapping murder machine blew up.)
The story acts like Wakka is an asshole for being an Al Bhed hater. There’s an entire arc about his supposed Al Bhed bigotry. The story blatantly shows us that every bad thing he ever said about them was true, but then at the end he breaks down and apologizes to all these people who tried to kill him for thinking poorly of them. And they forgive him. And nobody in the entire story seems to notice that maybe a reciprocal apology is needed.
It’s like the writer doesn’t realize the things the Al Bhed are doing are wrong. We could kind of forgive the incident in the ruins at the start of the game. Maybe that was an isolated group of Al Bhed. But this summoner kidnapping business is a major project directed by the Al Bhed leadership, involving attacks on our main characters.
They don’t like that summoners willingly sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Fine. But their response is to try and kidnap summoners and kill all who stand in the way. If you’re trying to kill people you’re no longer a conscientious objector or advocate for peace. You’re just another active participant in a violent conflict. Again, fine. That’s good fodder for a story. But you can’t turn around and pretend that the Al Bhed are this poor minority who are oppressed for no reason. They’re staging violent attacks to disrupt the only known method for averting the end of the world. They’re not “misunderstood”. People think they’re dangerous, and they are. They have assaulted harmless individuals. (Tidus.) They’ve assaulted summoner parties. (All of them!) And their attacks put the entire world in peril. Even if their viewpoint is morally correctAnd that’s a pretty big IF., they still aren’t harmless victims of prejudice.
A Thought Experiment: Fireman Bob
There’s a burning building. Hundreds are trapped inside. We’ve got a firefighter named Bob. He can enter the building and plunge into the flames in the basement to save all the people. How? I dunno. It doesn’t matter. Maybe he’s going to unlock a gate or turn on the sprinkler system or cut off the flow of fuel that’s feeding the fire. Something. Whatever. However, it’s 100% certain that – successful or not – he will die doing this. He will not make it back out. Despite this, he’s willing to make the attempt. In fact, he’s adamant that it’s his purpose to give his life to save these people.
But there’s this guy Albert. Albert doesn’t think it’s right that one person should sacrifice their life for everyone else, not even willingly. So Al tries to stop Fireman Bob from going into the building. The police try to break it up so Bob can proceed, and then Albert tries to kill the police.
What is Albert’s morality based on? How does he justify restraining Bob against his will (which, remember, will result in the death of hundreds) to save his life, but then trying to kill the police? I don’t know what Albert believes in, but it sure as hell isn’t pacifism. I’m not saying it’s impossible to come up with a justification for Al’s behavior, but I think most people will agree that his moral compass has a very peculiar calibration. In the context of a story, I think he needs to explain himself more than, “I can’t let any firefighters die!” Barring that, I think I need the other characters to recognize his inexplicable values and behavior.
The story keeps saying the Al Bhed as these idealists, but then showing us that they’re crazy violent jerks. When they aren’t trying to murder people they’re beating them up and cheating at Blitzball.
Crazy, or Dumb?
And even if we forgive their various violent crimes, it’s hard to sympathize with their particular position because their plan of kidnapping summoners is idiotic. It’s obvious that no matter how many summoners they nab, more will come, because the people of this world want to stop Sin. Eventually the Al Bhed would find themselves running some sprawling supermax prison brimming with pissed off magic users. That can’t end well.
They have to be thinking of this one of two ways:
1) Just stop the pilgrimages! We’ll think of another way to beat Sin!
2) We’d rather let the world be destroyed than allow people to willingly sacrifice themselves!
If they’re thinking #2, then the Al Bhed are a doomsday cult. They’re literally worse than the corrupt Yevon leadership. Yevon is willing to allow willing human sacrifice to forestall the end of the world, but the Al Bhed are willing perpetrate murder, which will hasten it.
If they’re thinking #1, then they should just go about looking for that way and leave summoners alone. The pilgrimages aren’t going to stop. So rather than splitting your efforts between kidnapping summoners (summoner parties are crazy dangerous!) and fighting Sin, just focus on the latter. Once you beat Sin, the other problem is solved.
Al Bhed? More like… All Bad!
Rikku and her father Cid (we’ll meet him later) put a sympathetic face on the Al Bhed, but judged solely on their behavior the Al Bhed are either idiots or villains. (And to be fair, there’s lots of room for them to be a little of both.) Sure, Wakka hurt people with words and ignorance. But the Al Bhed hurt people with bullets and malice. Why does Wakka’s understandable distrust demand an apology but not the violent crimes of the Al Bhed?
We can’t even use the fig leaf excuse of “Not All Al Bhed act this way”, because the game doesn’t show us a single Al Bhed that objects to this behavior. The leadership is instigating it, and the rank-and-file behave like thugs. They don’t seem to have any apologetic bystanders among their membersMaybe Rin the shopkeeper? But he never actually seems apologetic. He’s just the only Al Bhed that never physically attacks you.. Not only is their position morally questionable, it’s also inexplicable and all-encompassing. Everyone seems to be exactly the same sort of unexplained crazy / dumb.
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that Tidus (and thus the audience) doesn’t know about summoners dying when calling the Final Aeon. That’s the entire motivation for these attacks, and it hasn’t been revealed yet. Which means from the point of view of a first-time player, the Al Bhed are trying to stop pilgrimages for no reason whatsoever. This makes everyone’s understated reaction seem even more unreasonable.
From this point on Rikku is a kind and empathetic young girl. That’s great. She makes for a fun party member. But the writer wants to pretend this is the same Rikku that Tidus met at the beginning of the game, and that doesn’t work.
You can imagine what would happen if Yuna and the others found some harmless stray guy in the wilderness. He’s hungry and cold and confused. So Auron kicks his ass, Wakka suggests murdering him for being a fiend in disguise, and then Yuna forces him to work for his food. Rikku would be scandalized. She would fight against it, because this Rikku isn’t an amoral thug.
We can forgive lots of lapses of logic in this story. Sure, the Guado don’t have a really good reason to go along with Seymour, and maybe it’s a little strange that nobody notices that the Yevon guards all use forbidden weapons. We can nitpick lots of little details if we’re set on over-analyzing everything. But this stuff with the Al Bhed isn’t some missing exposition with a couple of nameless side-characters. This is a major faction in the story. This faction is filled with characters who all have names and voice acting, and their behavior feeds directly into Wakka’s character arc. The Al Bhed are an important part of this story and they need to be portrayed in a coherent way.
This blunder mystifies me. While the story is bonkers, the characters are generally solid. And yet here in the middle of the story we have this giant contradiction where the story keeps giving us reasons to distrust the Al Bhed and then acting like distrusting the Al Bhed makes you a prejudiced bigot. It comes off as both incoherent and sanctimonious.
 From the roof of the shoopuf cabin, which is almost Kai Leng levels of implausibility.
 And that’s a pretty big IF.
 Maybe Rin the shopkeeper? But he never actually seems apologetic. He’s just the only Al Bhed that never physically attacks you.
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