“At first, we were gonna go with everyone, but someone had to stay behind to look after the Chocobo egg, so we stayed.”
On the face of it, Final Fantasy IX is a cute game. Adorable, even. From the sumptuous watercolour picture-book visuals to the quirkily diverse cast of characters, it’s 1999’s equivalent of what today’s indie game marketers would call “wholesome” … but it doesn’t stay that way.
Its prologue heist is one of the greatest cold opens in video games. Perhaps the best, in fact. It’s pitch perfect, a sharp and enjoyable blend of tutorial, scene setting, and introduction of core characters – and it’s two of those characters that are key to its surprisingly dark story.
Final Fantasy IX’s twin themes are mortality and sentience. It literally asks the question, “what does it mean to be alive?”, and frames this question around not the characters who seem the most important – the heir to the throne and her knight errant protector – but around a cheeky rogue with a prehensile tail, named Zidane, and the tiny black mage, called Vivi, that the travelling thief takes under his wing.
Zidane and Vivi, it transpires, were not born but created, and into very different stations. The former is a prototype Genome, a race of engineered beings without souls, built to be the hosts for a long-departed race. The latter is a child-sized prototype of the Black Mages, a living army of magical golems, destined for battle and to never receive a soul.
But something goes awry. Vivi, who was raised by his “grandfather” away from the production line, is very much sentient. He lives his life as a “normal” child, and it is only when he encounters the lumbering, empty war machines in the company of Zidane’s troupe that he realises his true origins. (Zidane, meanwhile, has no reason to question his genesis, and it comes as quite the shock when he realises he and Vivi aren’t so different, after all.)
Struck with profound questions about his own capacity for emotion, his ability to circumvent his original, violent purpose, and his lifespan as an artificial life-form, Vivi encounters a village of other Black Mages who have found some degree of sentience. They are led by Mr. 288, a Black Mage who “woke up” and walked away from the battlefield, vowing to never cause any more harm. He met up with other confused, newly-sentient Mages and they live together in a village commune, trying together to understand a torrent of emotions in a world without answers.
The Black Mages begin “stopping”, however, and we find Mr. 288 in the graveyard.
He has learned the nature of mortality, that even their artificially-engineered species has a finite lifespan. That they, too, will eventually die. Not wanting to cause a panic, he keeps this information from the other Mages, with grave consequences. Kuja, another Genome and the moral opposite of Zidane – an archetypal Final Fantasy villain with an ethereal, androgynous beauty and just-stepped-out-of-the-salon hair – travels to the village and teaches the Black Mages of their mortality. He promises to extend their lifespan if they go to war with him. It’s a promise he cannot possibly keep, but the fear of “stopping” hangs over the village, and they follow him all the same.
Mr. 288 – who understands these things better than the other Mages – remains behind in the village. He knows Kuja’s promises are false, and that mortality cannot be avoided, cheated, or bargained out of. But when Zidane and Vivi return, they also find two other Black Mages have stayed behind: Mr. 33 and Mr. 111.
Why did they stay behind? Not because they knew Kuja to be lying, or because they’re not afraid of dying. No, Mr. 33 and Mr. 111 remain because they found a Chocobo egg who’s mother has died, and they want to care for it, protect it, and help it to hatch.
“I don’t understand. Why are you here?” Asks Vivi.
“We’re here to look after the Chocobo,” Mr. 33 replies.
“At first, we were gonna go with everyone,” Mr. 111 begins, “but someone had to stay behind to look after the Chocobo egg, so we stayed.”
“We kept the egg nice and warm by putting a lot of hay over it,” Mr. 33 adds.
“I can’t wait to show him to everyone,” Mr. 111 says, beaming with pride.
“They’re gonna be so happy,” agrees Mr. 33.
Mr. 288 might have the greatest understanding of the nature of the Black Mages’ existence. Meanwhile, Vivi and Zidane wind up saving not only the Mages and the Genomes, but the whole world, simultaneously unravelling their personal quest to understand their origins and their purpose in the world.
But in the end it is Mr. 33 and Mr. 111, who stay behind to nurture and raise an abandoned Chocobo egg, even though it flies in the face of their own self-interest, who prove what it really means to have a soul.