Final Fantasy IX and the Shakespearean Tradition

Spoiler Warning: this post contains spoilers for the game Final Fantasy IX and possibly for various Shakespeare plays. 

Image Credit: Final Fantasy Wiki

         It may seem to some a bit of a stretch to connect a Final Fantasy game with Shakespeare, but some may also realize that much of today's popular fiction, in any medium, is influenced by Shakespeare to some degree. Final Fantasy IX, of all the Final Fantasy games, seemed to be most highly influenced by the bard and is filled with elements from his plays. The game even has constant allusions to a fictional playwright named Lord Avon (a reference to Shakespeare's birthplace) and his play entitled "I Want to Be Your Canary." The protagonist of the story, Zidane, is a member of a troupe of actors who also take on nefarious tasks on the side. At the beginning of the game, Zidane and his troupe are about to perform "I Want to Be Your Canary" for the queen and princess, as well as any townspeople who manage to obtain a ticket to the show. "I Want to Be Your Canary" bears a striking resemblance to "Romeo and Juliet" as the story revolves around a forbidden love, which ends in the lovers' deaths. During the play, we witness young Vivi trying to access the arena where the play is being performed, only to be turned away. Vivi, however, is befriended by an impish boy named Puck, who helps him sneak in to watch the show. Yes, Puck resembles his namesake from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and may be an intentional reference.

      Aside from the obvious references presented in these opening scenes, there are many Shakespearean elements that are used throughout the game. A major element present is the motif of separated twins. Late in the game Zidane learns that the antagonist of the game, Kuja, is, in fact, his brother -- and not only his brother, his twin. Shakespeare uses the archetype of separated twins frequently throughout his plays. One of his notable uses can be seen in "The Comedy of Errors", in which the separation of two sets of twins causes a maelstrom of mistaken identity jokes and confusion. Final Fantasy IX does not follow this pattern, however, because Kuja has changed his appearance drastically enough that he and Zidane do not strongly resemble each other. The animosity between the two brothers more closely resembles "The Tempest," in which Prospero seeks revenge against his brother.

      Another common Shakespearean element present in Final Fantasy IX is regicide; yes, it's Shakespeare's favorite plot device, which can be found in Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, etc. (Too many of Shakespeare's plays contain regicide for me to list them all). In Final Fantasy IX, Queen Brahne becomes a principal villain, and the characters must battle her actions throughout much of the story. Queen Brahne's death is not caused by a direct homicide, but rather through an act of war directed by Kuja. Yet Brahne represents the crazed monarch that Shakespeare so often wrote into his plays -- she is reminiscent of King Lear, Macbeth, or even Richard III, and she is killed through human actions.

      I could likely write an entire book on Shakespearean influences in Final Fantasy IX, but the above are some of the most prevalent examples. The inclusion of a fictional playwright named Lord Avon and a play that is closely based on one of Shakespeare's most famous plays indicates that the creators of Final Fantasy IX were familiar with Shakespeare and likely intended to write the story for the game in the Shakespearean tradition. 

Works Consulted:

"Final Fantasy IX." Final Fantasy Wiki. n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. 
"Final Fantasy IX." dir. Hiroyuki Ito. Square, 2000. Video Game.
Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton &
      Co., 2008. Print.

Dear Esther

I recently played indie game "Dear Esther" after receiving it in one of the latest Humble Indie Bundles. It was a simple game that I finished in just a few hours, but when I reached the end of the game my primary thought was "this game completely fits the idea of video games being literature."

The tag line on the game's website says, "A deserted island... a lost man... memories of a fatal crash... a book written by a dying explorer." This is exactly what the game is. As you progress across the island, you hear diary entries written by the narrator in which he addresses someone named Esther. These entries are scattered and do not follow a clear timeline -- they are very stream-of-consciousness and do not explain all of the background of the events explained in the diary. Players (who could be called readers, as the diary entries are written across the screen as they are read aloud by the narrator) begin to feel a sense of unease about the island and about the man whose thoughts and actions we are following. By the end of the game, you feel as though you have a fair understanding of the man's past and his relationship to Esther, but there are still obvious holes in the story that remain unexplained. 

Interestingly, the game is more of a visual, illustrated novella than anything else. The action of the game mainly involves exploring the island and listening to the diary entries of the narrator. Instead of merely reading a fictional diary, readers/players are given an incredibly beautiful landscape to explore and view while being given the story. I have heard this game described as being in the horror genre, and I would agree, but it has nothing to do with shooting zombies or running from mutants (as is common in most games in the horror genre). The horror of this game is in hearing and piecing together the horrible and immensely sad memories that our narrator shares with us.

You can view a list of stream-of-consciousness novels here; I believe that "Dear Esther" follows a similar story pattern to many of the great 20th century stream-of-consciousness novels.

Below, I have included some screenshots of "Dear Esther" where you can see snippets of the story line (no spoilers!) and judge for yourself how literary the game seems to you.


"Shadow of the Colossus" as an Example of Post-Modern Literature

Spoiler Warning: If you have not played Shadow of the Colossus and intend to play it, note that there will be spoilers as I will describe the events that take place at the end of the game.

An image of Wander on horseback, firing an arrow at the second colossus.

     I'm sure the title of this post will raise quite a few eyebrows for several reasons. Some literary scholars argue that post-modernism doesn't really exist and that we are still within the scope of the modernist movement today, or that we have entered into a movement that cannot yet be labeled. I am not yet certain where my own beliefs lie in this subject, but I have noticed many similarities between the structure of the cult PlayStation game "Shadow of the Colossus" and the commonly agreed upon definition of post-modernism. This is what I will be analyzing in my post.

     A definition of post-modernism is given in the Norton Anthology: Postmodern American Poetry. The introduction to the anthology states that post-modernism "Suggests an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the narcissism, sentimentality, and self-expressiveness of its life in writing. Postmodernist poetry is the avant-garde poetry of our time" (Postmodern American Poetry xxv). The author then states that he could also have titled this anthology as "experimental" or "avant-garde" poetry, as those terms are similar in concept to "post-modernism". 

     I feel that this definition very neatly describes the story and concepts given to us in the video game "Shadow of the Colossus". The game begins with a simple story. A boy has brought a female companion to a shrine that he had to travel many miles to reach. The girl appears to be dead, or in a very deep coma. In this shrine, he learns from a disembodied voice that if he defeats 16 colossi, he will be rewarded in some way. With the boy, we hope that the reward will be a gift of life and health to the girl so that the boy and girl can live happily ever after. If this were a traditional story (pre-modern, we could say), the task would be simple: the boy would defeat the colossi and he would win the girl. Happy endings and celebrations would ensue. This is not the case with our hero, however. Fighting in an existentialist world, the boy (often known as the wanderer) defeats each of the colossi, which causes each of the individual statues in the shrine that represent the colossi  to break. Each time the boy defeats a colossus, he is filled with a dark cloud that seems to cause him pain, but he fights on to save his female companion. To a casual observer who is not closely following the story, this might seem like a simple tale of chivalry. A closer interpretation of the events that are taking place, however, would set a player into an uneasy state -- it doesn't seem right for the boy to be killing these colossi. Many of them are docile and do not seem to be causing any harm to anyone, and what is going on with that black cloud that continuously attacks our hero? At the end of the story we learn the horrible truth. These colossi were benevolent guardians of the land, and the boy has destroyed them and thus has led evil into the valley. The boy's wish is granted, but at a terrible price -- the girl awakens to find that her hero has now become... a baby? The ending is rather confusing. Our last glimpse of our main characters shows the previously comatose girl caring for our infant hero. 

     As a work of post-modernism, we can understand that the storyline of this game fights traditional expectations of both literature and traditional game plots. The hero does rescue the girl, but the ending is not a happy one. Instead, like many works of post-modern literature, we are left confused. The world in which this story takes place is not an optimistic one. There is constantly a feeling of imminent failure and doubt. Am I, playing as the hero, doing the right thing? Is there any way to reverse the horrible actions I have taken? Now that I realize that killing the colossi is an act of evil, can I redeem myself? The ultimate answer is no: the only course of action that he can take is to continue his path of destruction with the tiny glimmer of hope that he will still be able to revive his companion. This complex concept can easily qualify "Shadow of the Colossus" as a work of literature worthy of analysis. 

     Another idea I would like to note here is that the story seems to heavily reference a scene from the ancient text The Epic of Gilgamesh. Though this subject does not necessarily add to the conversation about post-modernism it is interesting to point out as an argument for "Shadow of the Colossus"'s literary merit. The scene is described in the Norton Critical edition as follows:
The adventurers begin to harvest timber and are encouraged by the Sun-god to attack the guardian of the forest before he can prepare himself. As battle is joined, Huwawa [the guardian] issues a threat to Gilgamesh and Enkidu but is unable to carry it out. . . . When the monster begs for mercy, Enkidu dissuades Gilgamesh from granting it. (Gilgamesh 160)
      In this scene, Gilgamesh is instructed by a deity (similar to the disembodied voice that instructs the wanderer) to destroy the guardian of the forest, Huwawa. Huwawa has done nothing wrong -- he is merely guarding the trees in the forest from harm, much like the colossi guard the land in "Shadow of the Colossus". It takes two men with axes and the help of a god to bring the so-called "monster" down, but in the end Huwawa is defeated. This concept is similar to the one hero in "Shadow of the Colossus" who defeats monsters who are many times larger than he is, with the urging of some sort of spirit or deity.

I will end this with a few relevant comments about my personal "Shadow of the Colossus" experience:
  1. I have not yet played Ico. I know -- boooo!
  2. I have only completed the Playstation 2 version of SotC, and though I have played much of the PS3 remake, I have not finished it.
Thus my interpretation of the game comes solely from the plot that takes place in the PS2 version.

Works Consulted:
Hoover, Paul, ed. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. New York: W.W. Norton & 
      Company, Inc., 1994. Print.
Shadow of the Colossus. Dir. Fumito Ueda. Sony Computer Entertainment, 2005. Video Game.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. Benjamin R. Foster. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.     

Edited on 3/13/2020 to include a screenshot from the SotC remake.