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Life in Gaia


I don’t know when I first saw Final Fantasy IX, but I remember my reaction to it: I immediately fell deeply in love with it – where I remain today – and I knew instantly that I would have to lie to my grandmother in order to get my hands on it.

My grandmother has always been adept at technology – after retiring from a position as a high school physics and chemistry teacher, she organized at least one cross-country extramarital affair through MSN chatrooms – and her house was always stocked with game consoles. At various points in my childhood, my grandmother’s antebellum home housed an Atari 2600, an NES, a Sega Genesis (with a 32X attachment, oddly), an N64, and, finally, a PlayStation.

I knew instantly that I would have to lie to my grandmother in order to get my hands on it.

Simply asking my grandmother to buy me a videogame was a delicate proposition: Her pockets ran deeper than her children’s, and hers was the only PlayStation I had access to. However, my grandmother didn’t particularly like me, and a sprawling, single-player role-playing game was a hard sell when a more multiplayer-focused game could satisfy more grandchildren at once.

The source of the bitterness between my grandmother and I isn’t particularly clear to me. One story, perhaps apocryphal, is that she particularly disliked my father, and that I inherited her scorn along with his genes. A more concrete explanation might be that I wasn’t a particularly lovable grandson: Convinced that my grandmother hated me, I routinely launched pre-emptive strikes against her. I once spent an afternoon putting boogers all over the wall of her bedroom. I once peed in an out-of-the-way trashcan and left it to sour. In retrospect, I am not proud.

By time Final Fantasy IX was released in 2000, several years had passed and the bodily fluid-related attacks had abated, but the distrust remained. I recruited my younger, and better-loved, brother to my cause. I forget the specifics of the scheme, but it worked: my grandmother bought a copy of the game – ostensibly for everyone to share – but I monopolized it totally. I played it religiously, eventually taking my grandmother’s PlayStation home after my cousins’ interest in games waned.

Making my younger brother complicit in extorting a videogame out of my grandmother was probably – in most moral systems – wrong, but the weight of the lie doesn’t compare to the effect the game itself had on my life.

I played Final Fantasy IX again during my first semester at a small, liberal arts university in Appalachia.

My first night there, I was upbraided by an upperclassman for neglecting to bring more than one blazer to school. Before I matriculated, all-male private boarding schools were the purview of turn-of-the-century England, but I soon learned that they continue to be the domain of young men from Virginia and Texas whose family heirlooms were emblazoned with crests and coats of arms. I later met and befriended a young woman rumored to be the heiress of whatever fortune is left in Kodak’s coffers.

It’s not that I didn’t have friends, it’s that the socio-economic gap between us rendered them completely, utterly alien to me. In comparison, a hometown friend of mine was once pistol-whipped by a drug dealer. I didn’t belong there, my homesickness compounded by culture shock.

So, I dove back into the dual-worlds of Terra and Gaia, trying to suppress Kuja’s black-market arms trade and navigate the geopolitics of various city-states like Alexandria, Lindblum, and Burmecia. Final Fantasy IX reminded me of home, and it was cheaper than driving the four hours back to Mississippi and less emotionally turbulent than the long-distance relationship I was trying to maintain.

In many ways, Final Fantasy IX is the perfect game for times of transition or insecurity: The entire game is an elaborate coming-of-age story. Every character in the player’s party faces some social upheaval or existential crisis that tests their identity, and they all come out on top in the end. Zidane and Vivi, for example, come to accept that they are both clones designed to serve as shock-troopers for the various political forces trying to outmaneuver one another in the background of the game’s plot. Princess Garnet and Eiko, however, are both orphans. Their dubious parentage drives their respective subplots, and they both emerge stronger and more independent as the game unfolds.

Final Fantasy IX‘s magical, medieval-steampunk fantasy world was a distinct shift away from Cloud and Squall’s gloomy futurism, and the game’s ending is – depending on your disposition – guilty of being maudlin or saccharine: Final Fantasy IX is an unceasingly cheery, optimistic game. Still, if Final Fantasy IX‘s uplifting story was therapeutic for me, that’s not what stands out about my memories of that time.

I think I found comfort in Final Fantasy IX‘s familiarity, no doubt, but also in Zidane’s ineffable, unfaltering march to power.

I think I found comfort in Final Fantasy IX‘s familiarity, no doubt, but also in Zidane’s ineffable, unfaltering march to power. Gaia is a world over which I have unparalleled dominion. I know every nook and cranny. I’ve toppled every beast, righted every wrong, and collected a vast hoard of gold, weapons, and armor. In a time when I was feeling lonely, isolated, and set adrift, it was nice to have a world I could easily bend to my will; a place with predictable rules set up to guarantee my success.

This is the great promise of the Japanese role-playing game: If I make smart choices, work hard, persevere, and put in enough time, I can become powerful enough to save the world. Futhermore, that world will be grateful to me and reward me for my sacrifices. Every character in Final Fantasy IX lives happily ever after, their stories buttressed up by a set of mechanics that success and happiness not only attainable, but inevitable.

Playing Final Fantasy IX that fall was also an acute reminder that the grandmother I’d spent so long resenting was helping pay for my education. My mother and I would later joke that she had helped with my tuition out of spite, and that she might have enjoyed knowing how lost I was in a strange land of plaid shorts and boat shoes.

Still, Final Fantasy IX is a touchstone for my relationship with my grandmother and the way it vastly improved after I moved four hours away and became the first of her grandchildren to graduate from college. It would be trite to say that my appreciation for my grandmother can be pinned solely on Final Fantasy IX, but it certainly stands at the midpoint of the arc of our relationship.

It’s fitting, then, that Final Fantasy IX was a boon to me during a time of upheaval and transition, a way of taking stock of, and reevaluating, the past. The game performs a similar function for the series as a whole. Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi called IX his “favorite” in an interview with IGN, explaining that it “is based on a reflection of all the previous works in the series.”

“It’s closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be,” he said.

I bought a new house last year, and my grandmother came to visit. Over pizza one day, I announced my plans to quit my day job and freelance fulltime. She was surprisingly supportive, but as I plunge forward again into the unknown, I know it won’t be long before I hear Nobuo Uematsu’s tinkling arpeggios again.

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