The following assumes the reader has played through Final Fantasy VII, VIII and IX.
While many games have continuously extended their stories into countless sequels, prequels and spinoffs, Final Fantasy remains as a series that has—until recently—extended itself with complete stories and universes contained within themselves. Final Fantasy VII, VIII and IX, while all being separate worlds with their own characters, represent a high point for the series. And while fans may bicker endlessly over which of these three was better or more representative, it’s interesting to look at these games as a sort of unrelated whole—united by their progression and evolution of the series. One unifying trend that is quite visible across each game is the nature of identity, and in many ways how one’s sense of self is formed. These three installments, though it may not have been intended, each elaborate on the nature of Self: How it is defined, evolved and challenged.
Tracing a common thread through Cloud, Squall and Zidane might not be apparent at first, but what becomes quite visible as the story in each game progresses is the struggle to understand one’s own identity is inherent in each of them. In VII, as the world begins to fall apart around him, Cloud races to knit together the pieces of what’s left of his sense of self after the traumatic experience of losing a friend and becoming an unwilling subject of study by the very government he fought for. As he struggles to remember who he is, and faces the fact that he has been lying to his own comrades, he begins to break down before finally understanding and regaining his sense of self in the memorable speech he gives aboard the Highwind that inspires everyone to return to the nigh-impossible task laid before them.
Squall, however, in VIII sees a different side of identity. His experience as a teenager unable to understand his peers and the role he is expected to play in a world that seems bizarre and unfair is what moves the story along. While the narrative begins to bend and flow with surreal events and settings, Squall’s forming identity, driven by a combination of his introversive personality and his developing love for Rinoa, cuts through as he fights to understand himself in a world that increasingly becomes more complex and confusing.
Final Fantasy IX is more than just a radical departure from the science fantasy trend arguably set back in Final Fantasy VI. While VII and VIII had occasional moments where the player took control of one of the secondary characters, IX almost places equal weight on the entire cast. Addressing only the nature of Zidane’s character in this sense almost doesn’t seem right; instead, it seems necessary to look at how this trend of identity manifests in at least two of the main characters.
If Zidane is to be considered the primary protagonist of Final Fantasy IX, his initial appearance is vastly different than Cloud or Squall—both of which do share a similar melancholic personality. There’s a greater sense of joviality in Zidane, but as his history is revealed, the game shows yet another character at odds with understanding who or what he is and what he’s supposed to do. It’s through the regaining of his forgotten memories that the positive and determined identity first introduced is shown to be who Zidane truly is.
Garnet has more in common with a character like Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII than any other individual so far. Faced with the realization that her kingdom an upbringing is a veiled lie, and one that seeks to take advantage of her abilities—like Sephiroth—she is forced to turn against everything that she has come to know. It’s at this point that her identity begins to take shape; her compassionate nature and desire to see Alexandria rise to its own potential is shaped by the revelation of her own personal history and the truth behind her government’s intentions—unlike Sephiroth whose similar understandings manifest into an unrelenting hatred and desire to see everything destroyed.
From this perspective it’s easy to see these three games each as a portrait of the struggle of identity with a clear message that important events, age and history ultimately become the trials that an individual must go through in order to define and comprehend who they are. Though the main Final Fantasy entries might have nothing to do with one another, at least on the surface, these three titles stand out as having more in common than just the generation in which they were released. They stand as a testament to the layers of narrative, art and philosophy capable within gaming through their inquiry into the depths of identity.