Evolution is about risk. When Final Fantasy X introduced voice-acting and proper 3D to the heavily story-based series upon its release in 2001, it risked moving away from the traditional Final Fantasy paradigm of a world map and scrolling text that had defined the franchise since its late Eighties conception. Yet it was a risk the franchise had to take on the new PlayStation 2 hardware, and one that producer Yoshinori Kitase had been considering since the team brought Squall’s quest to kill the Sorceress Ultimecia to life in the series’ eighth instalment.
“Since the time we were making Final Fantasy VIII, the visuals in Final Fantasy had been getting more and more realistic and I was feeling more and more dissatisfied at the fact there were no voices to go with it,” reveals Kitase. When we ask Kitase what he wanted to accomplish in bringing Final Fantasy X to the PS2 that he wasn’t able to previously, the answer is pretty simple: “Definitely the implementation of voice acting.”
Yet the voice-acting in Final Fantasy X would ultimately be contentious in the West, and would serve to disguise the game’s other monumental achievements in establishing what the next stage of the RPG should become on the PlayStation 2. Final Fantasy X came along two years after IX, the final entry of the series on PSone. Whereas IX had been mostly developed by creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s ill-fated Square team out in Hawaii, Final Fantasy X would be made by the same team that created VII and VIII – the two biggest commercial entries to date and perhaps the two most loved by the fan base – and both its character design and world creation would reflect that.
Final Fantasy X was a bold sequel in its choice of setting and scenario. VII went for a sci-fi/fantasy story, VIII focused on a world infused by both outlandish fantasy and European architecture and IX was a deliberate throwback to the medieval derring-do that defined earlier entries on the NES and SNES. X went for a tropical backdrop, where nature is allowed to run rampant, populated areas are colourful and the absence of major cities is literally written into the lore of the game.
The entire mythos of the world is defined by Sin, the game’s primary antagonist; an enormous mythical creature that has forever brought destruction into the populated areas of Spira, Final Fantasy X’s world. At the start of this tale, we meet Tidus, hero of the story, who resides in the glorious hi-tech metropolis of Zanarkand, and whose long-absent pseudo-abusive father is a source of great conflict for the character. After meeting a mysterious spirit-child and his father’s friend, Auron, Sin destroys Zanarkand, swallowing Tidus and Auron and seemingly transporting them into another world where Zanarkand was destroyed 1000 years ago.
As Tidus washes up on the island of Besaid, he learns that the majority of the populace are god-fearing and consider advanced technology to be unholy, swearing allegiance to the faith of Yevon. They’ve all lost something to Sin, and are taught that adhering to the faith’s teachings will protect them from this unstoppable entity. They’re indoctrinated into thinking they deserve Sin, that the unclean history of humanity warranted Sin’s creation as a pan-global penance for all to suffer.
“Sin was created to be a presence in the world that people could simply not avoid, however much they tried,” Kitase says. “I created him to represent the kinds of calamitous disasters we have in the real world, such as earthquakes and typhoons that people have no hope of protecting themselves from. Building on that, the world of Spira also has the teachings of Yevon, which give meaning to peoples lives in the face of inevitable death (although it turns out that these teachings were actually false in the end). So what I really tried to show in FFX was how people behave when they face up to this unavoidable fate. I feel that this theme can be applied to us here in the real world as well.”
Sin can be defeated by a Summoner, a rare individual who, armed with Aeons (FFX’s versions of Guardian Forces and Summons, like Ifrit, Bahamut et al) has the potential to defeat the creature – but only temporarily. Sin always comes back. It’s a perpetual plague on Spira that scares the people into fearing progress and expanding as a civilisation, leading to conservative philosophies formed around the church’s teachings, and vilification of those that reject following Yevon’s way.
In the midst of this contemplative mythos is Yuna, an orphan raised in Besaid who wants to follow her father’s example and defeat Sin. Tidus meets Yuna just as she begins her pilgrimage through Spira, joining her group of guardians as he searches for answers to what happened to his home of Zanarkand.
For fans who had built up this stereotype of the Final Fantasy protagonist being grumpy and cold, the more upbeat Tidus, voiced enthusiastically by James Arnold Taylor, was a strong contrast to the likes of Squall and Cloud from VIII and VII, respectively – we put this to Kitase when asking about the character’s creation. “Just as you point out, FFVII and FFVIII had very cool, detached and stoic protagonists (FFIX was created by a different team based in Hawaii so it is kind of an exception) and so to break the run of this kind of character I created Tidus to be cheerier and more optimistic.”
Yuna has the strongest character development in the cast. As a Summoner, she’s initially portrayed as deferential to her religion but respectful of everyone’s beliefs, a result of dual atheist and religious parentage. As the story progresses, the faith of Yevon starts to unravel – the church itself is revealed to be corrupt, and as Yuna learns she’s being manipulated, she joins the rest of her guardians in rebelling against the religious institution. “We tried to depict a heroine who was in no way physically strong but still had a very strong will and determination,” Kitase explains. “She has lived her life up until now simply following the creed that she believed in but when her whole world is shaken she then has to pick herself up and find a new way forward with her own willpower. That was the kind of strength we wanted to show in her.”
Yuna, Tidus and the rest of the party each have a different background that shapes their view of the Yevon faith; there’s Wakka, Kimahri and Lulu, who each adhere to the teachings strongly and have learned to fear Sin; then, the inverse of that, Yuna’s cousin Rikku who joins the party later in the game is a member of the Al Bhed, heretics who choose to believe in progress, while the later return of Auron to the story reveals that he was a victim of the Yevon church in the most unexpected of ways.
It’s a complicated setup, but one that’s fascinating in its exploration of how faith can be manipulated to control people, and how science and religion’s relationship with one another has always been frail. As subject matter goes, it’s examined with roughly the same depth as environmentalism in Final Fantasy VII – the subject is there to see and only gradually telegraphed over the course of the game.
As events progress in Final Fantasy X, Yevon is revealed as a deeply corrupt religion. A big plot twist hangs on Yuna’s relationship with one of the leaders of Yevon, Maester Seymour, an outrageously-dressed and darkly sinister figure who plans to merge with Sin to conquer Spira. The group murder Seymour, which turns your party from potential religious saviours to heretics instantly, and gives the story a new energy that makes the second half of the game especially riveting. Hanging over that tale is Tidus’s unresolved relationship with his father, Jecht, whose fate is tied to that of Sin.
Sin is a fascinating creature – shaped like a giant whale with the disconcerting sight of an ancient city resting on its crown; it’s an unsettling creation, shrouded in mystery and compounded with pervasive menace. “We created Sin as a threat that was far above the human level, in the same vein as natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons,” says Kitase. “Having massive ruins become a part of this creature’s physical form helped to visually cement the idea that it is an unimaginably ancient monster on an unprecedented scale. The broad physical shape of Sin is modelled after a whale to give the impression of this being’s awesome size as well as its intelligence and otherworldliness.”
On a macro level, the game’s story is about relationships – the romance between Tidus and Yuna is actually one of the series’ weakest to date, a little overcooked by the voice-acting, though the finale manages to bring this thread full circle. Much more interesting is the father-son dynamic of Tidus and Jecht, as the abandoned son lives forever in his father’s shadow, and their parallels clearly become a source of anguish for the character. In a departure from the trope of orphans in Final Fantasy games, Kitase took a more classic approach in forging Tidus’ and Jecht’s loaded relationship.
“Well this aspect of the story includes the timeless theme of a child trying to exceed the achievements of their parent that can be found in stories throughout the ages, such as the ancient Greek legends. Also, the bond between parent and child becomes a key factor in finding the one chink in Sin’s armour that allows for this otherwise invincible creature to be defeated.”
That’s the other thing – there’s a major connection between Jecht, Tidus and Sin that Kitase refers to here that is quite simply too complicated to go into, but makes sense within the logic of the universe. What’s fascinating is the way Tidus has to accept that his father has pursued an arc of redemption since abandoning him as a child, and reconciling that with his own unfortunate memories.
Such storytelling was a good opportunity for the first Final Fantasy with voice acting. “As the previous games had only had text, the depth of expression available to us was greatly broadened by the introduction of voice,” says Kitase. “On the other hand, by giving them actual voices the facial expressions of the characters became a lot more important and we needed to put a lot more energy into that than we would have done previously.”
On a gameplay level, other major changes were brought to the franchise. Summons are a staple of Final Fantasy’s iconography, and in X players were allowed to control and customise them like members of the party, since gathering these creatures was the goal of Yuna’s pilgrimage. With that in mind, Kitase and his team worked to ensure their animations demonstrated some kind of dynamic with Yuna, to underline their place in the story.
“We decided to make the process of acquiring each of the Aeons an important element to the main story progression as Yuna goes on her pilgrimage around Spira,” says Kitase. “This importance that was placed on them made us take a lot of care in their design. It is a staple of the Final Fantasy series that there will be a complex summoning sequence as each one enters battle but what differentiates FFX from the previous games is the interplay between the summoner (Yuna) and the beast that is called forth. For example, after summoning Valefor Yuna will occasionally pat its head and this was deliberately put in to express the closer relationship between them. By emphasising this relationship between Yuna and the Aeons we managed to give the final scene of the game where she has to part with them even more impact.”
And what a final scene it is. The narrative of Final Fantasy X is constructed in such a way that the final payoff has an emotional impact not just on central protagonist Tidus, but also Yuna and the whole crew of Guardians. Revelations abound in the final hour of Final Fantasy X, and it has one of the most rewarding final cutscenes on the PS2. The end-game was exactly that – once you approached the Final Aeon, that was it, no going back. There’s a classic boss rush that actually feels justified – a rarity in the genre.
It’s a credit to Final Fantasy X that its narrative is so aware of the mechanics it works with, right down to the emotive and poignant finale. For many gamers, Final Fantasy X represents not just a technical highlight of the PlayStation 2, but also an emotional one – every character’s personality was well-realised and defined with aplomb, every environment hummed with its own atmosphere and sense of place, every narrative beat hit home with an intensity few games have managed since.
Final Fantasy X was a scathing criticism of religious extremism, a celebration of technology, a warning against arrogance and a genuinely important landmark in the wider gaming landscape. Kitase understands this, and seems deeply humbled and affected by player’s reactions to his work. “By presenting this game to the world and seeing the reactions of those that played it I feel that my outlook on life has been broadened,” he tells us. It’s reassuring to know that the impassioned response to Final Fantasy X is a two-way relationship – and is perhaps why the game will live on in gaming consciousness for years still to come.
The full interview with Kitase is available in games™ issue 143, out now.