Tidus and Square-Enix’ Metaphysical Zeitgeist (Final Fantasy X)
Who am I?
This week I started a new teaching position. Because of some strange circumstances, I am the third teacher my students have had in the last three weeks. As I greeted my new classes on my first day, a young man took one look at me then exclaimed to his classmates, “We are orphans!”
Who am I according to my students? I am the new guy. In a little while I will be the old guy, before too long I will be the guy who used to teach there, and then, eventually, I will become the guy who no one remembers. For now, I am the new guy. But is that who I am? And, eventually, when I am gone, and my existence has faded from living memory, will I cease to exist?
According to the prevailing existentialism of our time, yes. Unless, I were to assert my existence on a grander scale; perhaps, like Cloud from Final Fantasy VII, I could achieve some heroic feat (e.g., I could save the world from a giant meteor; or, somehow engage a totalitarian tyrant in an epic melee of fisticuffs in which I decisively defeat said tyrant and thus doing, manage to free the world from his tyranny); if I could act in such a way, surely I could ensure that my existence does not fade from memory.
Such is the dominant narrative of our era. The question is not, who you are born, it is who you choose to become. “You are what you do,” or, as our French existentialist friend, Jean Paul Sartre, put it “l’existence précède l’essence” (existence precedes essence). Unlike the traditional western (i.e., Christian) narrative which posits humans as, first and foremost, children of God and/or fallen creatures, existentialism posits humanity as, first and foremost, defined by our actions. Consequently, we live on after death in the collective memory of those who survive us.
So what on earth does all of this have to do with Final Fantasy? Much.My first post on the Final Fantasy series (you can read it here) posits Cloud in Final Fantasy VII as being, ultimately, let down by the existential ethos of his world. He achieves as much good as one could ever hope to achieve through their actions, and yet, he is tragically unhappy at the story’s close. While Cloud’s character signals a discontent with the existentialist narrative, it is the character of Tidus in Final Fantasy X who provides the most comprehensive commentary on this subject to be found within the franchise.
Arriving in 2001, Final Fantasy X hit the market at the height of developer, Square-Enix’ (then just Square), metaphysical zeitgeist. Each of the previous four games in the series, as well as the company’s cult-classic Chrono series, had provided deeply involved, deeply insightful comments on the nature of human existence. The series had big shoes to fill in terms of metaphysical speculation; and fill them it did.As with its three direct predecessors, FFX prominently features a love story and asserts love (coupled with heroic acts) as the answer to all existential woes. “We are what we do” is the clarion call of the franchise, and in this episode, Tidus emerges as the ϋbermensch (or, ideal man) by introducing an ethic of love and active idealism (his actions spring from his love of Yuna and his sometimes naive desire to save humanity) into a world dominated by the oppressive power of an archaic, tradition-run worldview (as evinced by the people of Spira’s fear of technology, and their unquestioning religious adherence to the teachings of Yevon).
Ultimately, Tidus’ love and idealism win out and the world is saved. But what is truly remarkable about this game, and what makes it a real work of imagination in my estimation, is that (like FFVII) it ends with a twist. Despite its general espousal of the need for individuals to form and validate their own identity through action, the game eventually betrays its leading-man. It frames him as an existential hero only to ultimately rob him of any corporal existence. As the game progresses, it becomes apparent that Tidus comes from a world (Zanarkand) that was destroyed long ago, and he himself is nothing more than a dream, or an echo, briefly given life in the present only to soon disappear like a vapour in the wind.
Where FFVII introduced an existential statement about the necessity of heroic action only to draw that ethic into question by leaving its hero lonely and tortured at the game’s end, FFX goes even further byaffirming an ethic of love and active idealism as an existential answer only to have the prime agent of that ethic dissolve into thin air at its narrative’s close.
Admittedly, Tidus will live on in the memory of his friends and of the people of Spira, but here FFX undermines the existentialist program by presenting that answer in a way that seems horribly trite. What is interesting about the triteness of this statement is that FFX highlights it even through its introduction of an underworld—the Farplane.
(For those of you not intimately acquainted with the afterlife as presented in FFX, or for those who just don’t remember all that well, the Farplane is a sort of underworld in which the peacefully deceased find their existence after leaving the world of the Spira.)
The Farplane comes to serve as an elaborate metaphor for the axiom that the dead live on in the memory of those who loved them. After all, the living can actually go to the Farplane to visit the deceased. And yet, existence in the Farplane is actually no existence at all. Those who go to the Farplane are completely inactive; they remain, forever, exactly as they were when they died—like memories, they do not have any agency to change of their own free will.
Not only will Tidus always live on in the memory of his friends, for they can also visit him at the Farplane. But because this is an inactive existence (like memory), even the addition of the Farplane is not enough for FFX to make the existentialist program appealing (heck, it sure doesn’t satisfy Yuna—she spends an entire sequel roaming Spira in hopes of bringing Tidus back).
I admire Tidus for his naive idealism and his privileging of love, but it is his tragic end that entreats me to love him. He does everything that is asked of him, and more; he saves the world, loves his girl, and breaks a people out of its tradition-soaked oppression. Yet, despite making every effort imaginable to validate and form his own existence, he is nothing more than a memory by the game’s end. His action and sacrifice are presented as laudable, yet there is something more here. At the end of the game (even after multiple plays), I find myself left with a bitter pang akin to nostalgia, a longing for more, perhaps even a need to question my own existence, or at least my own significance. If the existential program of Tidus is correct, and my existence is defined only by my action then I will, indeed, one day be nothing more than a memory, an echo. And while I hope that my memory will live on in positive ways, I fear that such an existence is not enough. I do not want to disappear like Tidus. Is this just the time-honoured longing of our species for meaning beyond our corporal existence, or could it be that this near-universal longing is based on the fact that there is more to life than our brief corporal sojourn on Earth? FFX does not answer these questions; however, one of the reasons I love Tidus is because he lives in the tension of unknowing, he lives these questions, and he invites us to ask them of ourselves.