Final Fantasy IX and Character
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Final Fantasy IX (Squaresoft, 2000), the last of the Playstation Final Fantasies. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
When Squaresoft released Final Fantasy IX in the summer of 2000, the Final Fantasy series was in a very different place than it is today. After a suite of titles set in pseudo-medieval worlds, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII bucked the trend with more modern settings. Final Fantasy IX was designed as a return to form, paying homage to earlier titles. According to Art Director Hideo Minaba, “[The developers] wanted to give the feeling of a series watershed, a sort of grand collection of what has come before.“1 A central pillar of that homage was the character Vivi, a Black Mage whose visual design hearkened back to the original Final Fantasy. Vivi’s character was so important to the developers that they developed the game’s aesthetics around him,2 resulting in a uniquely cartoonish world that stood apart from the rest of the series. Although Square had some misgivings about releasing such a distinctive game as a numbered entry in the series,3 they ultimately took the risk and released it as Final Fantasy IX. The gamble paid off: Final Fantasy IX found both critical and commercial success, earning high review scores and selling millions in the first year. While its outstanding soundtrack, vibrant graphics, and classic combats systems played a role in its success, fans often cite the character of Vivi as one of the most memorable aspects of the game.
Although Vivi is not the main protagonist of Final Fantasy IX, his storyline is inextricable from the main plot and spans the entire length of the narrative. As a young, inexperienced Black Mage, Vivi knows little about the world outside his home, so he wants to see it for himself. However, his innocent dreams take a dark turn when he meets an army of robotic Black Mages who look just like him, but lack his personality and free will. With the help of his friends, Vivi’s desire to explore the world transforms into a quest to learn the truth about his origins. In the process, he finds a sense of purpose and embraces his own mortality. These are heavy themes for a child to tackle, especially in such a colorful and cartoonish game, but Squaresoft pulled it off masterfully. By giving Vivi strengths, weaknesses, goals, and obstacles, the developers turned him into a fully-realized character capable of carrying a dense, moving storyline.
The Traits of a Well-Rounded Character
Strengths and Weaknesses
Vivi is a character with numerous strengths, both external and internal. His most obvious external strength is his skill with magic. As a Black Mage, Vivi is capable of casting powerful spells, making him a deceptively formidable force despite his diminutive stature. That small size also allows him to go places where others can’t, which helps him evade enemies. His true strength lies not in his physical prowess, however, but his emotional core. He’s kind to others, even when they’re antagonizing him: a trait seen early on in the story when the rat-boy Puck demands that Vivi become his “slave” in exchange for a chance to see a show in Alexandria. Since Vivi’s excited to see the performance—evidence of his sense of wonder, another one of his strengths—he decides to look past Puck’s poor manners and follow him. The decision results in a lifelong relationship, one that Vivi rekindles when he crosses paths with Puck later in the game. This chance meeting also shows evidence of his compassion, which is one of his most positive qualities. From his earliest scenes with co-protagonists Zidane, Garnet, and Steiner, Vivi demonstrates genuine concern for the well-being of others and will put himself at risk to protect them without a second thought. Thanks to his powerful magic, Vivi’s more than capable of defending others, so his kindness and compassion pair well with his desire to protect his loved ones.
Like any well-rounded character, Vivi has external and internal weaknesses that offset his strengths. Physically, he’s small, clumsy, and frail, and he’s not able to put up much of a fight in situations where he can’t use his magic. He’s also inexperienced in combat, which comes from his lack of life experience in general. This lack of experience also defines his internal weaknesses, which stem from his trusting nature and naivety. His earliest interaction with Puck could have backfired if Puck had been a different type of person, and his earliest attempts to befriend the murderous Black Mages almost got him killed. It’s no surprise that Vivi begins to second-guess himself after these near misses, revealing a crippling nervousness and self-doubt. He knows he’s frail and inexperienced, and he worries these weaknesses will hold his friends back. Luckily, his friends are willing to give him the space to grow, which he does in two ways: by pursuing his goals and overcoming obstacles.
Goals and Obstacles
Goals are an essential component of any character arc, as they give characters a reason to move the story forward. Even if the characters’ goals don’t seem to be connected to the main plot at first, they can become relevant in surprising ways. When Final Fantasy IX begins, Vivi’s desire to see the play I Want to be Your Canary seems unimportant when compared to the kidnapping in Zidane’s ‘A’ plot, but it becomes relevant when Vivi winds up on stage and gets dragged into Zidane’s scheme. Vivi has just enough time to adjust to his new reality before he encounters the mysterious Black Mages, who look just like him but don’t have minds of their own. Their existence forces Vivi to question his own, which leads him to set a new goal for himself: “…I wanna find out who those guys were…and why I look like them.” Although his apprehension is clear from his dialogue and his body language, he’s willing to face his fears to learn the truth about his origins. This ability to move forward in the face of adversity proves Vivi is serious about achieving his goal, making him much more endearing to the audience. It’s an ability that will be tested multiple times throughout the story as successively larger obstacles appear in his path.
For a young, adorable character, Vivi faces more than his fair share of hardships during his quest to understand his origins. When he first meets the other Black Mages, their reactions to him range from indifferent at best to outright violent at worst. To make matters worse, they’re also attacking civilians at the behest of Queen Brahne, who just so happens to be the mother of Vivi’s new friend, Garnet. This forces Vivi to make a difficult decision: abandon his own kind, or does he betray his new friends? It’s a choice that resonates with the audience because it has no easy options, and it forces Vivi to grow as a person. He grows even more when he faces his next obstacle: a startlingly limited lifespan, one programmed into the Black Mages by their creator. Even though Vivi was a prototype created to a different set of specifications, he’s not guaranteed to live much longer than a year. It’s a heartbreaking revelation for Vivi, as he’s only just begun to learn about himself and the world, but he doesn’t let it stop him. With the help of his friends, he comes to terms with his impending death, and together they make the most of the time he has. It’s a tragedy the audience must come to terms with, as well, as Vivi is absent from the closing scenes of the game. His legacy will not be forgotten, however: he lives on in the memories of his friends and in the spirits of those who come after him.
Narrative Analysis: Character Strengths
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1,2 IGN Staff. “The Final Fantasy IX Team Spills All.” IGN, 2000.
3 The Gaming Intelligence Agency. “New Final Fantasy Revealed.” Transcribed from an interview with Shinji Hashimoto, 1999.
4 Schreier, Jason. “Final Fantasy IX Retrospective: The Final Fantasy’s Final Fantasy.” Kotaku, 2019.
* Reference Footage: Warlord Xecc. “Final Fantasy IX HD (Game Movie) Full Story Supercut+Timestamps.” YouTube, 2018. https://youtu.be/2qdV0qLQyAg