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  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

Final Fantasy IX’s Theme of Identity

Updated: Jul 4

The Most Prominent Theme of Final Fantasy IX


When I ingest media, I am one of those weirdos who enjoys themes. Not all things have overt theming, or complex theming, or comprehensible theming, and that’s totally cool. But I do like to dig. I like to connect. 


Most Final Fantasy games have a mix of themes, generally because of the scope of the game. Traditionally, the most accessible theme is “Good vs. Evil” or “Light vs. Dark,” but sometimes they dip into more impressive ideas. I can’t help but recall the back of the jewel case of Final Fantasy VIII (FFVIII) that said it had an “epic story based on the theme of love,” which, to my frame of mind, doesn’t go very far. Likewise, Final Fantasy VII (FFVII) has important themes on environmentalism that get slowly overwritten by other emerging themes (I’ll write about that some other time).

(FFVIII jewel case)


Final Fantasy IX (FFIX) has a theme that is unique among its peers, and also pervades almost every aspect of its story. FFIX has a theme of identity.


This analysis will be separated into three parts. 


First I’m going to talk about the macro aspects of this theme, beginning with the lore. What takes place before the story, and how does that relate to identity?


Then I’ll move on to a smaller macro, the large-scale communities, species, and nations, such as the Terrans and the Summoners of Madain Sari. 


Finally, I’ll drop into the juicier part of all of this, the micro. How does the theme of identity apply on the scale of the individual characters? Where do Vivi and Zidane fit in all this? What can we learn about Quina and Freya through the lens of this theme?


Identity in Macro - The Lore


Let’s get the lore out of the way.


FFIX is about an alien species who, in order to stay alive, are merging their homeworld, Terra, with the world of Gaia. The people of Terra are dead, but their souls live on in a crystal at the heart of Terra—ostensibly a soup of all of their memories.


Immediately, just by learning this bit of lore, we might ponder the nature of Terran identity. Are they individuals? Are they cognizant in their soul-state? Are they the collective memory of a planet? All of these things? Can they self-reflect?


(There are some extra lore details concerning soul stasis in Pandemonium which helps somewhat hypothesize over the answers of soul individuality, but it's the question we're more worried about here.)


Gaia also has a crystal that pushes souls in and out, a sort of reincarnative “lifestream.” Terra merges with Gaia hoping to hijack its healthy crystal and supplant all of the Gaian souls with Terrans souls, thus bringing Terra back to life, in a sense.

(Image of souls from "Final Fantasy IX Ultimania")


The FFIX Ultimania guide already muddies the water of identity not only by filling in this backstory (which is rather underdeveloped in the text of the game, but still present), but also by providing us an image of a soul. The text explains this soul as being part Gaian, part Terran. So even in this, the motivating factor of the story, it is unclear how to identify a soul that is part Terran and part Gaian. 


Think about that. We have no way of knowing whether or not our main cast of characters—the people we are playing as for the whole game—are or are not pure-souls, and how much of them is actually built from the souls of aliens. The identity that Terrans are trying so hard to protect is indefinable at every scale, be it from the pool of souls of their own planet, or the new mixture born of the fusion process.


This idea doesn’t just stay as a mental exercise. The planet of Gaia itself is littered with the ruins of Terra poking out: Oelivert, Ipsen’s Castle, the Iifa Tree and its roots, the Desert Palace. While crawling across Gaia like an ant, you are never truly seeing just Gaia. You are seeing a 5000-year fusion between Gaia and Terra. What planet are we really on, anyway!? 


Identity in Macro - The People and Their Memories


FFIX is a fun, cartoony mish-mash of monkey-folk, faceless mist boys, jumping dragon rats, and Hippaul, an Alexandrian child who, as you might have guessed, is partly hippo.


Or is he all hippo? That’s another piece of identity we could explore, but we have bigger fish to fry. Namely, civilizations.


As we explore Gaia and progress through the plot, we encounter Oelivert and Madain Sari. Both of these places are interesting because they tell the history of a lost civilization. Who were these people, and what were they like? We start to learn some of those answers, but we never actually meet the Terrans or Summoners. Our way of identifying them is through the lens of a historian, of a novice anthropologist, of a student. The driving historical forces of the planet are not easily identified in the plainest sense.


Furthermore, the Terrans have created a sub-civilization of beings known as Genomes. First, they created Garland, who was tasked with merging Terra and Gaia so that he might Make Terra Great Again. He himself then made the other Genomes, mostly to use as bodily vessels for the souls of the Terrans. This means we have a whole species in this game that is defined by its quasi-identifiability. The game does not care that they have monkey tails, or that they have a distinctive Meg Ryan haircut. What matters is that they are in between identities, and will not know who they are until the fusion process is complete.


(Mikoto, a Genome from Final Fantasy IX)


And oh boy, the nesting doll of creators/creations does not stop there. 


Kuja takes it upon himself to craft automatons from the exhaust of Gaian spirits. Yes, the Black Mages. We’ll dive into this more when we talk about Vivi and Kuja. They are their own thematic worm cans. But it’s important to note layers of identity theming in all this. 


We have an entire civilization of “created beings” who don’t understand their purpose, and who have been created by a “created being” who has lost his purpose, who is from a civilization of “created beings” who have no sense of self, who were created by a “created being” who functions for the single purpose of recreating his creators, who are aliens that no longer exist in physical reality.


The levels of existential dread that characters feel when confronting this reality takes up the majority of the emotional space of the game.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this moment to talk about Necron, the final boss who seemingly pops out of nowhere. I don’t think there’s much to say about Necron himself other than that he means to end all life, starting with the crystal that holds all souls and memories (and is also the logo of the game). What’s more valuable is Memoria, the "place of memories."


As you explore Memoria, you start witnessing little “memories” that none of the party share. It is confusing. How is it they remember and don’t remember these things? What is going on? Well, Memoria is bringing them closer to the “soul soup” that is the driving force of the lore. Remember when I said that the existence of the Terrans immediately brings up questions about identity? Well, here in the final area, we are seeing that question at play. If all of our souls and all of our memories get absorbed into the planet’s crystal, and we are all part of this sort of “universe” of “being,” doesn’t that bring up a lot of questions of self? Of identity? 


Memoria is an abstract "cool final dungeon" when viewed purely through the lens of the plot. But when taken with the theme and the lore, it makes some sense. Memoria is a strange place that doesn’t make you question where you are, but rather who you are.


Identity in Micro - The Characters

(Vivi from Final Fantasy IX)


Brother Vivi, you said it. Maybe we don’t exist.


Who am I? Why do I exist? These are the existential identity questions at the forefront of FFIX. 


The clever thing here is that the concept of identity has already been pushed by the lore and the world itself. But left alone, the stuff I mentioned before really isn’t enough. It’s fascinating, but just having lots of lore is not how I would demonstrate a truly pervasive theme. The way that FFIX manages to bring this theme home is through the characters. I posit that almost every character in FFIX is written with the theme of identity in mind, turning that theme around and examining it from different angles. Let’s start with the obvious.


Vivi Ornitier


Vivi is an automaton. A puppet. At the beginning of the game, he doesn’t realize that he has been manufactured, literally, in a weapons factory. His arc, which we follow lovingly throughout the game, starts with him discovering what he is and slowly trying to come to terms with what that means. Who is he? What if he doesn’t exist? Is he just a cloud of mist wearing a robe? Does he belong to society? 


The Black Mages (his fellow automatons), as a civilization, belong in the macro section. But it’s important to look at them individually as well. We find out that the Black Mages start becoming sentient (“awaken”) and eventually establish a secret town with a lot of little identity adventures on display.


For starters, the Black Mages must come to terms with their own literal naming identity. They officially adopt their manufacturing number as their name. The leader of the Black Mage Village is named No. 288. The synthesis shop is run by No. 192 and No. 32. Many people in real life believe that Vivi is just a stylization of the number 66 in Roman numerals.


Vivi’s specific type of identity crisis is existential, dealing a lot with what it means to be alive. The Black Mage Village and its inhabitants demonstrate this well. The more memorable moments are the birth of a chocobo from an egg, which they then give a name, Bobby Corwen. This is life! Another encounter—a heartbreaking one—involves No. 56 being upset that his friend, No. 36, has “stopped” and is now buried in the cemetery. This is death!


Vivi’s journey of identity is arguably the heart of the emotional adventure in FFIX, and can’t be reduced to just this theme. Yet, still, it’s valuable to understand the theming at play here, because Vivi’s journey is enhanced by this overarching flavor.


Garnet “Dagger” Til Alexandros XVII


Garnet is another hugely important character in terms of identity. One of the first things she does is try to hide who she is. Then, she struggles with her heritage and her role in society. Is she a princess? Is she a Summoner from a lost tribe? This is the journey she takes.


She has a crisis of meaning, of role, but not in the same way that Vivi does. Her worry is more about her heritage, her people. She was born from a now-extinct race. She was adopted by Queen Brahne and raised as royalty. But which one is she? Where does she belong? What is her duty to the planet and its people? How does she serve the world best while also understanding who she truly is and where she belongs?

(Final Fantasy IX)


It could be said that she is playing with identity more than anyone else in the main party. She spends most of the game hiding her royal upbringing, for example. At one point she goes mute, putting into question her identity even as a Summoner you can use on your team.


Her name itself is also important. She is the only character who you can rename (“Dagger”) where you are not actually renaming her, but rather renaming her alias. But, after she regains her own agency, this seems to swap. Garnet becomes her alias, and she truly becomes Dagger (or whatever you named her). This moment of identity realization is even signposted with a significant visual change: she cuts her hair with a dagger!

(Dagger from Final Fantasy IX; not to be confused with Garnet)


According to the development featurette “Inside FINAL FANTASY IX,” event designer Kazuhiko Aoki had to push for Garnet getting a whole new character model for her short hair, had to push to get that cinematic of Garnet slicing it off. They realized that players called her a different name depending on her hair length, with many calling her Dagger only once her hair was cut. This is a powerful moment of identity change that comes out of the game itself and even affects how players identify her.


Adelbert Steiner


Steiner might be the most fun for me to think about. He is such a stubborn, immovable oaf. Almost every single thing he says, he says with the rock-solid certainty a person can only have when they are totally, completely wrong. He knows his place in the world. He is firm in his identity. He is loyal to the royal family and will protect the princess with his life!

(Steiner from Final Fantasy IX)


Which creates quite the problem for him, doesn’t it? When it turns out that Queen Brahne is evil and wants to put Princess Garnet’s life in jeopardy, Steiner no longer knows who he is. Is he the loyal Knight of Pluto who would do anything for his queen? Or is he an honorable bodyguard of the princess who would never let anything happen to her? He cannot be both!


Look, if this isn’t an identity crisis, so help me, I don’t know what is!


Freya Crescent, Quina Quen, and Eiko Carol


I’m going to squeeze these three together because, frankly, their relationship with the theme is fairly easy to explain, and none of them really have a lot of plot that requires deep diving.

(Freya from Final Fantasy IX)


Freya has one of the more literal relationships to the theme of identity, but also one of the most unique angles. See, her identity dilemma is external, rather than internal.


What irony. To find the man about whom I have dreamt endlessly... only to discover that he cannot even remember who I am!

The love of Freya's life, Sir Fratley, has amnesia. He has lost his identity. And because of this, Freya means nothing to him. It’s a simple variation, but I think it’s important. Freya has very little story to tell in the scheme of FFIX, and yet, the creators used what little story space she had and implanted it with “what if this guy didn’t know who I was?” I think it’s clever!


(Eiko from Final Fantasy IX)


Most of Eiko’s identity issues are somewhat underplayed for how important they should be. Until Garnet comes along, Eiko believes she is the very last of her kind. She lives in the ruins of her dead tribe, the Madain Sari Summoners. From her perspective, she may be the only human left, period! She's surrounded by moogles and dwarves! Plus, she's just a kid, which is an identity disaster if I ever heard of one!

(Quina Quen from Final Fantasy IX)


Quina is Quina.


I mean, is there any other character in the history of Final Fantasy who has less doubts about who they are, what they want, and what they are here for? If all of the characters in FFIX are said to be involved with an identity issue of some sort, how in the world could this genderless creature have... oh. Oh, okay. 


The identity of Quina is more of a funny little gag, I think. The joke’s on us. S/he is a Blue Mage, which is a great thematic choice, being that all of his/her spells are taken from elsewhere, muffling identity. Quina's race is not discernable as any particular creature. Quina is also the only character to bring gender identity to the conversation, having a unique set of pronouns and a cheeky Steam achievement.


You could say that, like Freya, Quina's identity issue is external. Quina knows his/her identity with perfect, unrestrained confidence. The player, and the characters around him/her, however, are not so certain. 


Amarant Coral


We don’t talk about the Flaming Amarant.


...


Okay, fine. Look, I think Amarant puts a wrench in the system. I’ve heard Internet Rumors™ that claim he was only created near the end of development for market appeal. This feels true. His relationship to the theme is mostly absent, but so is his relationship to the plot, the world, and the other characters. If I squint, I can say that his identity is wrapped up in the strongest person he meets, which is fine. It’s a trope. But really, the only benefit inspecting Amarant has on my thesis is one of the exception proving the rule. He’s so distant from having a connection to the theme, we can sort of see what a character would look like if they had no connection to it at all.


Kuja


Kuja is a puppet, like Vivi, but created by Garland. His very existence is central to the theme of identity, simply by him being what he is. But it goes further.


Kuja was created for a specific purpose. He is meant to cause war and chaos (among other tasks), but was deemed too powerful and difficult to control. So he was demoted and replaced with a different Genome, Zidane. This really grinded Kuja’s gears. It’s another example of a person no longer knowing who they are or how they fit in. 


Arguably, Kuja’s desperate existential identity struggle is the catalyst for the story as we know it. He becomes an arms dealer, and creates the Black Mages. He manipulates Queen Brahne. He goes around stealing Eidolons so that he might kill his own creator, Garland. The knowledge of his limited lifespan drives him nutty, which in turn summons Necron from his secret nook. The knowledge that Zidane was made to replace him makes him jealous, which leads to him kidnapping Zidane and dropping him off into the care of the Tantalus bandits.


As a villain, he’s not particularly a stand-out in the franchise. He looks cool, has an amazing musical theme, and definitely has more weight on the plot than, say, Ultimecia from FFVIII. But what he does better than any villain in Final Fantasy is represent the themes. Kuja is the foil to Zidane, Vivi, Dagger, and everyone else who struggles with their identity. Except, instead of pushing through like our heroes do, he goes full Joker.


If all of the heroes represent ways of overcoming issues with identity, Kuja is what happens when you react poorly to an identity crisis.


Zidane, isn't it hilarious!? I'll die just like the black mages I so despise! I single-handedly brought chaos unto Gaia, but in the end, I'm nothing but a worthless doll!

Zidane Tribal


I know I implied that Vivi is the heart of this whole narrative, and that’s likely true. This game is nothing without Vivi. But if Vivi is the heart, Zidane is backbone.


Zidane acts as the emotional assistant. His relationship with everyone reinforces their confidence in their own identity. This is shown in how he supports Garnet, Vivi, and even his old friend Freya. But his arc is key. Eventually, Zidane finds out that he has the most nebulous identity among them.


Remember, Zidane is a Genome. Worse, he’s the “angel of death” created by Garland to replace Kuja, the game’s villain. Zidane was so cocky when this story started, so self-assured. He was the embodiment of well-meaning privilege. He was always willing to help people with their identity struggles, but his security came from having no struggles of his own. That changed immediately when he learned the truth of his own existence.

(Zidane's quote from Final Fantasy IX)


My, how the confidence falls, and so heavily!


When Zidane discovers he, too, is a puppet created by another puppet created by aliens, all of his bravado falters. Who is he? Why does he exist? It’s humorous to me how quickly he succumbs to depression. This is so realistic. Yeah, he was fine dealing with other people’s problems when he didn't have his own! He never once thought these problems could happen to HIM!

(Zidane lamenting his loss of identity from Final Fantasy IX)


But my smile disappears quickly. This revelation leads to the most powerful scene in the game—perhaps one of the most powerful scenes in any game. It's now Zidane’s turn to be guided by his friends, all of whom are equally lost and equally confused about their own identity and their own relationship to the world around them.


You Are Not Alone


Bam. The song “You're Not Alone!” plays, a song that is unabashedly sincere. The scene isn't full of high action or fast cuts. It’s mostly just Zidane stumbling zombie-like down a corridor, hungover with his own sense of identity loss, calling himself and everyone a bastard or a twit. As he shuffles along, all of his friends come to help him, just as he had helped them before. They are returning the favor. But now, their advice is different than anything he could have offered. “Welcome to the club,” they seem to imply. “You’re not alone.”


End of the Theming


I've talked about the theme of identity in FFIX from the macroscopic aspects, like the mission of the Terrans and the implications of the ruins across Gaia, to the microscopic aspects, mostly concerned with the main characters. There are other small-scale and large-scale things that come naturally from this theme in FFIX. I didn't even come close to talking about them all (for example, how the theme is expressed through the mechanics).


What's important to note down here is the sort of "looseness" of the theme of identity. Sometimes it is guided by existential dread, like with Kuja and Vivi. Sometimes it's about a character's place in society, like with Dagger, or their place among peers, like with Freya and Quina. Sometimes the theme is being played much more literally, like in trying to understand what exactly the Terrans are. Sometimes it's even hyper-literal, like Cid transforming into an oglop and a frog. But this is the fun of a theme. What are the ways in which we aren't known, aren't identified? How many variations are there? How many angles? FFIX does something fun in that it doesn't just take one identity struggle, but rather nests various identity struggles within each other. Vivi having doubts about his humanity while Steiner has doubts about his duty are both viable and interesting ways of dipping into this theme.


The value in analyzing themes like this is varied. Having a theme like this doesn’t dictate every molecule of the game’s design process, nor can it be ascertained whether many of these decisions were made consciously or unconsciously. It doesn’t matter to me either way. What matters is that FFIX has a lot to appreciate from many different angles—mechanics, characters, aesthetics, music, etc.—and theming is another one of those perspectives. For my money, it’s one of the best examples of themes in any JRPG, and goes a long way in making the whole adventure feel like it has something to talk about.


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